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Finding Comfort Amid the Storm - Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

09/18/2020 04:30:42 PM


Rabbi Carlie Weisbrod Daniels

Well, here we are. I don’t think anyone could have imagined just six months ago that the High Holy Days would look like this. Our lives have been turned upside down. The sense of safety and security that I know I took for granted before the pandemic, has come crashing down around us, leaving us scared and vulnerable. Many, if not all of us, have experienced isolation and loneliness, fear and uncertainty over what lies ahead. We are facing a communal calamity, the likes of which we haven’t collectively experienced in years, perhaps ever. We’re longing for normalcy and seeking comfort.

Seven weeks ago, I offered a teaching on Shabbat Nachamu, the sabbath that is known as the Shabbat of Comfort, as we entered the seven weeks of consolation, the period between the summertime holiday of Tisha B’av and this day Rosh Hashanah. The themes of hope and comfort are drawn out in the prophetic readings from the Book of Isaiah that we read on the seven consecutive shabbatot leading up to the Jewish New Year.

On Shabbat Nachumu we read, nachamu, nachamu ami, “Comfort, comfort, my people." Uncharacteristic of the terse biblical text, the word nachamu, comfort or console, is repeated twice. A 12th-century commentator explains, “The repetition of the words ‘comfort ye’ is to indicate that the comfort is to be administered immediately and repeatedly.” The people do not have to wait for the consolation, it comes without fail, over and over again. Nachamu, we pray for comfort now, nachamu we pray for comfort in our days ahead. And I would suggest that we can also interpret the doubling of the word nachamu as a call to comfort both ourselves and each other. In this time of collective pain and suffering, we look inward to our own needs, and our tradition beckons us to look outward as well to provide comfort to our family, friends, and community.

Now seven weeks later, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, we’re still very much amid a pandemic. Praying in our homes instead of our sanctuary, collectively seeking a sense of comfort and hope as we enter the year 5781. Rosh Hashanah encompasses both the great hope for the year to come and the fear and anxiety we face as we continue to live our lives, pandemic or not. Now, fear and uncertainty outweigh everything else. We call this period the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, and since the Hebrew norah can also be translated as awe and fear, this period can also be understood as Days of Fear. Rosh Hashanah is meant to be celebratory and hopeful, and it also reminds us of the limits of our power and control. We stand humbly before our God as we welcome the new year, declare our mistakes, and begin anew … And maybe this year we stand even more humbly knowing what we know now.

Our rabbis taught that it is exactly in these moments of struggle and uncertainty that we must face life, even the challenging moments, head-on. Consider a story from our tradition, Rabban Gamliel said:

Once I was traveling on a boat, and from a distance I saw a boat that shattered and sank. And I was grieved over the death of the Great Teacher, Rabbi Akiva, who was on board. But then when I came ashore, and stepped foot onto dry land, I found him sitting and teaching Torah! “My son!” I said to him, “how did you survive?” He said to me, “a stray board from the boat floated past me, I clung to it, and then I greeted each wave that came with a nod.

According to the Talmudic story, Rabbi Akiva made it to safety not by waiting for the storm to pass, but by doing what was in his power to navigate the storm one wave at a time. An apt metaphor for us today. We are small in the vast multitude of creation and we only have control of how we maneuver life’s joys and struggles and everything in between. This message abounds in our High Holy Day machzor. As part of our Rosh Hashanah morning service, we offer the liturgical poem, Untaneh Tokef, which has been part of the High Holy Day liturgy for centuries. The poem speaks of God as judge and decision-maker, the one who inscribes and seals in the Book of Life. The poem begs us to consider: Who Shall live and who shall die, who will reach the ripeness of age, who will be taken before their time.

It is a challenging piece of liturgy that ultimately serves as a call to action, it reminds us that we have the power to change ourselves through three acts; teshuva, the return to the right path, t’filah, prayer, and tzedakah, righteous giving. Rabbi Aaron Panken, of blessed memory, taught the following in response to the call of Untaneh Tokef. He said,

Our actions help us live in such a way that when we suffer life’s darkest depredations, we will always have ways of coping with them. Our actions may not change the ultimate outcome one iota, but they alter our attitude, bolster our ability to withstand challenges, help us handle unavoidable misfortunes better, and see life’s value amid chaos and dismay.

I have shared these words of my teacher and mentor every year since his tragic and sudden death in 2018. And this year, his words are even more relevant. These actions of teshuva, t’filah and tzedakah help us “see life’s value even amid chaos and dismay.

During the high holy day period we are called to perform teshuva, often translated as repentance. More precisely, the Hebrew word teshuva means return, a return to the right path. Let me be clear, I’m not merely speaking of teshuva in the sense of apology and forgiveness, rather I’m referring to the weighty soul work required of us in this season. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “The most unnoticed of all miracles is the miracle of [teshuva.] It is not the same thing as rebirth; it is transformation, creation.” Teshuva is an act of creation, in that it leads to progress and transformation. Teshuva does not mean returning to the same place emotionally, physically, or spiritually, it means moving forward with a new spirit and attitude better equipped to face whatever life throws our way.

I imagine the pathway of teshuva as a three-dimensional spiral, not a cyclical return, it is an act that springs us forward transforming us so we can better navigate the proverbial swirling waters ahead. The truth is every year the message of Rosh Hashanah stays the same; we enter the New Year with both hope and fear – knowing that so much of life is out of our control, and at the same time engaging in the important work we are called to do within ourselves and amongst each other to help us see life’s value amid the chaos. It’s the same message, year after year, but each time we are different. This year, due to our circumstances, maybe we will hear this message a little differently, exactly the way we need to, and perhaps, I pray, it will provide us the peace and comfort we so desperately seek.

Shanah Tovah – May you have a sweet and healthy New Year.


Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784