Friday, October 14, 2011

H.E.S.E.D. at Temple Emanuel - Rosh Ha Shanah Morning - 5772

H.E.S.E.D. at Temple Emanuel
Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning – 5772
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO

Dear Friends,
L’Shanah Tovah, Happy New Year.
            Have you ever wondered why Rosh Ha Shanah precedes Yom Kippur?  Why do we begin a New Year – full of hope and joy; apples and honey cake – and then, ten days later – we’re miserable:  fasting, and thinking about all of our mistakes?  We move from rejoicing to rehashing our most painful moments of the past year and repenting for our sins.          
           It’s very Jewish isn’t it?   You have one moment of joy and then…… guilt. 
            Why isn’t it the other way around?  Think about it….if we get the hard stuff out of the way first – the repenting, the confessions, the fasting, then we can truly enjoy Rosh Ha-Shanah. 
            I guess that’s one way to look at it.  But the truth is, if we take it to its logical conclusion, the fact that we are rejoicing in a New year – giving thanks for all of our blessings – changes our view of the world around us and gives us an opportunity to understand our role in the unfolding of creation – some might even say that it helps us to understand our purpose in life.  And once we understand this, then we have no choice but to act on this understanding
There’s a chasidic story of which I am particularly fond:
Once, 3 distinguished Rabbis were travelling from Warsaw to Breslau – a three day journey.  They had timed their travels so that they would arrive at their destination before the onset of Shabbat. It was now Friday afternoon.  The shadows were lengthening and the wind was bitterly cold.  The rabbis were very concerned about arriving at their destination on time.  As they came closer to the city, they urged the horses that were pulling their wagon to go faster and faster so that they would not violate the Shabbat by arriving after sundown.  Suddenly, one of the Rabbis heard a faint sound - it sounded like a young child – and it was coming from the forest – just beyond the trees on the side of the road.  As they turned the corner, the sound got increasingly louder.  The continued on their journey – slowing down to see what the noise was, and suddenly they saw, to their amazement, the sight of a boy – dressed in rags – obviously hungry, tired and cold… who was dancing and singing at the top of his lungs!
The rabbis stopped their cart and walked over to the boy.  “are you all right?” they asked him. 
“No!” he shouted as he danced and sang with joy.
The rabbis were puzzled. 
·         “Why are you here in the middle of the woods?” 
·         “Because I’m lost!  And I’m hungry!” the boy sang out and danced some more
The rabbis looked at each other in amazement. 
·         “But if you’re lost and hungry, why are you dancing and singing?” they asked
The boy stopped dancing for a moment, caught his breath and looked at the three rabbis.  It was as though he was seeing them for the 1st time.  He then told them the following story: 
“Three days ago, my parents and I were travelling in these woods and we were attacked by robbers.  My mother hid me in the back of our cart and when the robbers weren’t looking, she told me to run as fast and as far as I could into the woods.  She told me not to try to come back to the cart and that she and my father would find me.  And so I ran and I ran until it began to get dark, and cold.  I spent that first night in the forest in terror.  I cried out for my parents to come and find me – but they never came.  I couldn’t sleep – there was nothing to eat.  I was terribly afraid.  The next day, they didn’t come, nor the next.  By that time, I was so hungry – I couldn’t stand it.  I tried to find nuts and berries – but I didn’t know what to eat. I started to cry because I was so tired and so hungry. I cried myself to sleep.  When I woke up and realized that it wasn’t a dream – that I was really all alone in the forest, I started to cry again.  But then, all of a sudden something came over me. I thought to myself: ‘Wait a minute, I’m hungry…I’m tired…. I’m scared….. I can feel my hunger, my exhaustion, my fear….if I can feel it, then that means, that I’m alive…!  What a gift – to be alive – to feel pain, and fear and hunger.  And so I started to dance and sing because I realized that I was alive – in the middle of God’s creation – how lucky can I be!”

The rabbis realized that this was no ordinary boy.  And so, the story goes, they brought him with them to Breslau where he was reunited with his parents.  Eventually, the boy grew up to be a great scholar – a mystic – who came to be known as Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav.

            I love that story – it teaches a basic truth that we need to incorporate into our lives – the realization that life is a gift.  As we welcome in a New Year, this truth has special resonance:  no matter how bad things get; no matter what difficulties we may face – we still can cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
            Today we rejoice in renewal.  Like the young Rebbe Nachman who saw beauty even in the midst of despair – our prayers today can enable us to open our eyes to the wonders that surround us.  But feeling gratitude:  seeing and appreciating the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of the world – isn’t enough.  If all we do is appreciate what we have, then we have missed a vital opportunity to use that sense of appreciation and turn it into a powerful force for good.

            As Rabbi David Wolpe writes: 
All Tikkun, all reparation, begins in appreciation. We heal relationships because we understand their value. We seek to restore the imbalances in the natural world because its native pageantry dazzles our eyes. Yom Kippur is the outcome of our Rosh Hashanah vision: surrounded by possibility, we need to heal what we have hurt, or nurture the untended patches of God’s garden. Seeing the cracks in creation, we acknowledge our obligation to fill them. First comes gratitude, then regret, then restoration.[1]
            On Rosh Ha Shanah we give thanks for our blessings – but for some of us – the blessings we take for granted are as much a result of circumstance as they are of hard work. We don’t choose to be born at a specific time.  We cannot select our families.  From the perspective of history, we live in the richest country in the world in a time of relative prosperity – despite the current economic downturn.  We are privileged:  we have access to health care and education;  however flawed these may be – compared to what others have, it’s remarkable.  We have security, sustenance and sustainability.  Many of us here this morning are very fortunate. 
            And we are grateful for our good fortune.

            But, as we know all too well, outside the walls of this sanctuary, there are many men, women and children who are not so privileged; who live lives of quiet desperation.  Do we see them?   How many people with cardboard signs, standing on street corners did you pass as you drove here this morning?  How many homes in your neighborhood went into foreclosure over the past year? How many children went to bed hungry last night?  How many jobs were lost?  How many businesses shut their doors?  How many people lie awake at night – having to choose between paying for health care, or food, or basic necessities?  How many opportunities for growth, learning, renewal were lost for lack of funds, or lack of champions?

            My friends, there is an unease and an ugliness that is underscoring much of the ethos of our nation.  When I was growing up, I was taught that the American Dream meant that anyone could reach their goals and find success.  If we applied ourselves and worked hard enough – we would succeed.  And so many have succeeded.   But as we are all know, for too many in our nation, the promise of prosperity is rapidly fading.  The gap between rich and poor is growing exponentially larger and the middle class is in danger of eroding before our eyes.  This is not a result of laziness or lack of initiative – it is simply a fact of economic, political and social reality.

            The flip side of the American dream seems to imply that if someone does not achieve their goals, or faces a setback, they must NOT be working hard enough.  Something must be wrong with them.

            Now, intellectually, we know that this kind of logic is erroneous – even cruel.  And yet, it creeps into our consciousness.  Sometimes we secretly resent those who do not appear to share our appreciation for life’s blessings.  We avert our gaze.  And in our own lives - when we are faced with loss or failure, all too often we become ashamed.  It’s as if we must have done something wrong to have this happen to us.

            Over the course of the past year, I have sat in my study and listened as members of our congregation have bared their souls – sharing their fears and embarrassment over the fact that they have lost a job, or failed to achieve the successes that they assumed they had earned or deserved.  And they’re reluctant to talk about it.  This is not supposed to happen!  And I know that for every person with whom I have spoken, there are many more that would never come to me.      

            The underpinning of American ideal is the concept that the purpose of life can be found in the pursuit of life liberty and happiness.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and yet, Judaism teaches that we need to set our sights higher: we believe that the purpose of life is kedushah and tikkun, holiness and repair. And holiness and repair are not achieved when we are complacent and content; they occur when we are in disturbed and troubled and ask aloud: “why?”

            A story:   Once a group of people were having a picnic by the side of a river.  It was a beautiful day – the sun was shining - the river was bubbling merrily alongside the picnickers.  Suddenly, the party was interrupted by the sound of screaming.  A young child had fallen into the river and was struggling to stay afloat.  Quickly, all of the people ran to the river and jumped in to save the child.  Thankfully, they brought him out of the river – shaken and drenched, but safe.  They returned to their picnic.  But soon the sound of another child was heard – she had fallen into the river as well.  The picnickers ran to the riverside and, once again saved the second child.  Then another child was seen, then another.  The people quickly surmised that they needed to do something.  They formed a bridge of hands and ropes and, one by one, they plucked the children from the river.  This went on for several hours until someone looked at the rest of the group and said:  “Maybe we should go downstream and find out why so many children are falling into the river in the first place….”

            My friends, this morning, I want to challenge all of us here to stop and think about how we – as a congregation – as a community – are addressing the problems that we see around us every day. 

            Are we using the tremendous amount of resources at our disposal to make a difference in the world?

            I have a question:  What is it that keeps you awake at night?  The environment?  The economy?  Homelessness?  Unemployment?  Healthcare?  Education? Israel?  It doesn’t matter what the issue is, what does matter is that we allow ourselves – as individuals and as a community – to acknowledge that, unless we address the root causes of the problems that we are facing, we are no better than those picnickers on the banks of the river – devising ways to rescue the children – but never thinking about why so many were falling into the river in the first place.

            This morning I want to tell you about a new initiative that we are introducing at Temple Emanuel.  It is called the H.E.S.E.D. Project.  Hesed is a Hebrew word that means loving-kindness.  But it is now also an acronym that stands for “Healing, Empowering and Serving at Emanuel Denver.” The goals of the H.E.S.E.D. Project are to enable members of Temple Emanuel:

·         To talk about issues of concern in our society – what is it that keeps us awake at night?

·         To identify specific issues that we, as a congregation want to change
·         To learn as much as we can about those issues
·         To build partnerships with other faith communities and congregations in the greater Denver area

·         To engage in dialogue with other communities and community leaders and policy makers about the issues we have identified

·         And finally, to hold our community  leaders accountable for carrying out and implementing change
            The way that the H.E.S.E.D. Project works is as follows:  We will start by bringing together small groups of congregants to meet in living rooms, coffee houses, or here at the Temple.  At these initial meetings, we will reach out to one another and engage in meaningful conversation about the issues that concern us - whatever they may be.  There is no pre-conceived agenda in play here. The issues around which we will gather will come directly from the concerns that our members raise during the initial discussions. We ask that you only attend one of these meetings.  Our goal is to hold at least 50 such small gatherings of no more than 10 people each over the course of the year – enabling approximately 500 members of our community to share their thoughts and feelings.  The sense of meaning and purpose that can occur when we join together in dialogue is very powerful.

            If nothing else happens after these meetings are finished – we could call the H.E.S.E.D. Project a success – because it will have opened doorways and portals of entry for members of our congregation, who, for too long, have felt on the “outside;” who have been searching for a way to connect with other like-minded individuals.

            But of course, we want to do more than simply meet and talk about our concerns.  Our goal is to make an impact on our community.  The next step in the process will take place once we have decided on the issue or issues that we will address.  We will then enter into an educational phase where we will learn as much as we can about the background of these issues.  We will consult with experts from all sides of the political and social spectrum in order to ensure that have a full picture of what and who we are dealing with.

            The next step will be joining together with other Denver area congregations who share the same concerns around our identified issues -  and holding forums with elected officials and policymakers who are in positions to implement change.  At these forums we will make a case for our concerns and ask that specific changes be made.  

            The next step is following up with those officials with whom we’ve established contact – to help them clarify our position and to urge them to act.

            The next step is evaluating our progress – and, if necessary re-tooling our efforts to be more effective.

            Once we feel that we have accomplished our goals – we will start again by identifying other issues that we feel need to be addressed.  And the cycle will renew itself.

            My friends, we are not acting alone in creating the H.E.S.E.D. Project.  Here in Denver, we will be working with the Metro Organization for People (or M.O.P) which has a 30 year history of partnering with local congregations and schools - helping them to identify the issues of concern that link them with other institutions in the community. In the past, M.O.P. congregations and affiliates have successfully organized around issues as diverse as clean drinking water and school accountability.  Actions by congregations affiliated with MOP, have resulted in improved public transportation, environmental cleanup and the dedication of resources to job training and scholarships – to name just a few successes. When like-minded individuals come together and share their passion for social change, amazing things can happen.

            We are also not alone in the Jewish community.  Many other Reform Congregations around the country have recently introduced similar initiatives and all reports have indicated that this process can have a significant impact on every level of congregational involvement – from leadership development to an increased sense of spirituality, to adult education.  When we unite around issues of shared concern – and we help bring about needed change - we are putting our Jewish prophetic values into practice and actively pursuing Tikkun Olam – the repairing of the world.

            For years, Temple Emanuel has had a well deserved reputation for being a leading voice for social justice in Denver.  In particular, our rabbis have historically served as spokespeople for civil rights and human dignity.  We are justifiably proud of this. Many individual members of our congregation have also made a significant impact on our community. In addition, we have made an impact through service projects such as K’vod Catering and Mitzvah day.  And yet, over the years, we have not done a very good job of acting as a united communal voice for change.  On this Rosh HaShanah – it is time for all of us to use the hope and the promise of the New Year as a motivating force to change our world. That is truly what this day is about.

            As you leave the sanctuary this morning, you will find literature that provides more details about what we hope to accomplish in the next few months.  You may also see several people wearing special Temple Emanuel Lapel pins.  These are all people who are or will be involved in the H.E.S.E.D. Project.  Talk to them.  Everyone involved in the H.E.S.E.D. Project will receive a similar pin.  I urge you to take part.  If you would like to be on the coordinating committee of the H.E.S.E.D. Project, please get in touch with us – after the holidays…..

            My friends, the sound of the Shofar reminds to be thankful for all of our blessings.  But it also serves as a clarion call for never allowing our own thankfulness to go to waste.  As we welcome in another year, let us be filled with hope, conviction and knowledge that we can make a difference in perfecting our all too imperfect world.

            Ken Yehi Ratzon – may it be God’s will. AMEN


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