Rosh HaShanah 2020, 1st day sermon: "The Secret to Finding Things that are Lost"

I don’t need to tell you that every aspect of these High Holy Day services are a new experience for me: just 14 people in the sanctuary, everyone wearing masks, and giving sermons in my office. These are among the many ways that this Rosh HaShanah is different from every other Rosh HaShanah. 

And then there are the more trivial differences:  For example, I have never before given a sermon inspired by a refrigerator magnet.

For many years we had a refrigerator magnet on our refrigerator that I picked up at a Jewish book store many years ago, because it intrigued me and it sounded like it would be very useful for our family at the time.  It was labeled  סגולה למציאת אבידה segulah li-m’tzi’at avedah, a ritual or charm to bring success in finding lost objects.  At that time with several young children at home, we were losing things all the time,and I thought I should take whatever help I can get. So even though I am not most attracted to the parts of Jewish tradition that focus on mystical rituals to bring good luck, I picked up the magnet and it had  a place of honor on our refrigerator for the next ten years or so.

The rest of the text on the magnet said - in Hebrew: if you ever lose something, here’s what you should do to find it again. You should recite the following passage from the ancient midrashic text Breishit Rabbah - an ancient midrashic commentary on the book of Genesis:  אמר רבי בנימין הכל בחזקת סומין עד שהקדוש ברוך הוא מאיר את עיניהם, מן הכא ויפקח אלוקים את עיניה  Rabbi Benjamin taught: all people are essentially blind,  until the Holy Blessed One lights up their eyes, as we read in the story of Hagar:   ויפקח אלקים את עיניה  God opened Hagar's eyes.

According to this magnet, then, if you want to locate a lost object, you should focus on one detail from the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh HaShanah.  Abraham has sent Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.  For whatever the reason, they are given insufficient water, and the water runs out.  Hagar fears that her son Ishmael is going to die of thirst.  But then, at the last possible moment, an angel of God calls out to Hagar, and tells her that God has heard the cries of the child, and they will be saved.


Usually, when we tell the story, we understand the next thing that happens as a miracle.  Suddenly, a well of water appears, to revive Ishmael and Hagar.   But - as Rabbi Benjamin reminds us - that’s not exactly what the Torah says.  What we actually  read is “ויפקח אלקים את עיניה ותרא באר מים - God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw the well of water.” The implication is that the well was there all along, but for some reason Hagar was unable to see it. This is why the ancient sage Rabbi Benjamin tells us to learn from this story that all of us are as if we are blind, until God opens our eyes.  And if you have lost something - it’s not really lost. God just hasn’t opened your eyes to it yet. 

In fact, many of our sages have suggested that this is a primary way that God answers prayers -- not in making things magically appear when they weren’t there previously, but by opening our eyes to what was there all along. 


Well, I wish it were that easy.  I think we’re all looking for shortcuts these days to deal with everything we’re frustrated and anxious about and everything we may feel we have lost.  I can’t say that this magnet helped us to find lost objects.  (In fact,  I can’t even find the magnet.) But focusing on this detail in the story can help us to better understand some things that have happened to all of us this year. 

The Hebrew word that is used here, פקח, to refer to God opening Hagar’s eyes, is the same Hebrew root we see in other places in the Bible not to refer to literal sight, but to insight - such as when Adam and Eve have the sudden realization that they really ought to get dressed (Genesis 3:7).  And this root is also used in the torah and in rabbinic literature to refer figuratively to enlightenment - to being blessed with wisdom and insight that is not necessarily visual. 

If there has been a theme for us this year - as a world community, as the United States community, as a Jewish community, even as a local Jewish community - that theme has been that our eyes have gotten opened wider this year.  In fact, on my mind are three themes from these Rosh HaShanah prayers that often seem remote and abstract and hard to grasp - but this year, our eyes are opened wider to these realities. I’m not someone who believes that bad things always happen for a reason, or that the purpose of misfortunate is to teach us a lesson. However, I do believe that we all should take every life experience as an invitation to engage in some introspection and learning, and there is much we can be open to learning this year.


First, I notice that every year, as I plan High Holy Day services, I include a number of stories and extra readings to amplify the idea that our lives are finite and that we have less of life remaining now than we did last year at this time.   This is a major theme of the High Holy Days -- and yet, something tells me that we don’t need additional readings and stories to remind us this year.  Whether we’re younger or older, I imagine most of us know or know of someone who is about our age, about our level of health, who had a devastating health experience this year. Our eyes have been opened on a societal level as they rarely have been before to life’s precariousness and capriciousness. 


This does not mean we all have the same response to the confrontation with mortality that frankly all of us have faced this year. Some of us respond by being extremely careful and some of us respond by being reckless. Some of us respond with greater appreciation of each moment and each day, and some of us respond with a sense of life’s meaninglessness or with overwhelming anger and fear.  Some of us respond by trying to control our environment, while others of us respond by going with the flow.  But despite our different responses, we all have a different kind of understanding that we are not invincible. We may be more open than usual, to the teaching from the Book of Psalms:  למנות ימינו כן הודע ונביא לבב חכמה - “Teach us to number our days, that we may attain a heart of wisdom.”  (90:12)   


Second, this year our eyes are especially open to the commonality of all humanity.  You saw the photos from earlier this year of empty public squares all over the world, photos of just about every iconic market and monument  closed and quiet, With a stunning percentage of the human population staying at home this spring.  It’s not often that we get to experience what the text of the Mahzor encourages us to feel - ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם - make all of humanity into one bundle, one common bond.   Our eyes are opened a little wider to the common bond of humanity that we share.  


Whether you prefer the religious account or the scientific account of the origins of humanity, or some combination thereof, both affirm that we’re all descended from a common ancestor. And as a result, we all share a biology that makes us vulnerable.  Also, we note that on a communal and societal level we face a virus that preys especially on our desire to eat and drink and celebrate together, to sing together, to embrace each other and mourn together.  There’s not a society or culture on earth that does not share these desires. To some degree, the challenges in getting compliance with wise health guidelines shows just how much these guidelines go against the grain of what we are all primed to do as human beings. We want to BE TOGETHER.  In fact, the first time in the entire Torah that God identifies an imperfection in the world is  when God says, לא טוב היות האדם לבדו - it is not good for this human being to be alone.  (Genesis 2:18)  We also note the intelligence and insight that we share, that - God willing - is helping us to work together to triumph over the threat. This is one of those rare times when potentially, the eyes of every single human being could be opened up to better understand our common bonds with every single other human being.  Usually we have to work so hard to remember this.  Imagine what we could achieve together if we all remembered that feeling and took it to heart.  


There is also a third High Holy Day theme on my mind that we understand better than ever before.  These days are referred to as the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah - the seven days of repentance and return and renewal. On these we focus on the choices we make and their implications on others. In his discussion of the message of the Shofar, the Rambam (Moses Maimonides of 12th c. Egypt) teaches us that we should see ourselves as if we, and the entire world, had amassed exactly the same amount of good deeds and bad deeds, Such that our own personal future, and the future of the entire world, is going to be determined by our next action. (Laws of Repentance 3:4)   Rationally, we know that the character of our society is an aggregate of all the decisions that we each choose to make as individuals, and we are bidden to act thoughtfully because our actions have implications on everyone.  This lesson too is usually quite abstract.  But not this year.  


The ancient sage Shimon Bar Yohai used to make this point by describing a person sitting on a passenger boat, who pulls out a drill and starts drilling a hole under his seat.  The other people on the boat start yelling at him:  what do you think you’re doing?! Are you trying to sink the boat and get us all killed?!  And he calmly responds:  Why should you care?  Am I drilling under YOUR seat? (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6)   It is stunning to see such exact parallels to this story playing out throughout the United States.  Most of us don’t need this story to remind us that there are profound ethical implications to our every small decision - where to eat, how close to stand to other people, whether to wear a mask and how to wear it - these are not only self-protective actions,  but also ways we protect others.


Some of us may have wondered: how would I act when the chips were down, if history had its eyes on me, and I were faced with challenging decisions when even my small actions would affect others. Well, now we all know how we would act, because we’re all doing it. Our eyes are opened to something about ourselves, whether it’s something we wanted to know or not. 


There are also other ways our eyes have been opened this year. Some of us are opening our eyes to truths that we had desperately hoped were not true. I’ll tell you that I began this Jewish year with a hopefulness that even though I was well aware of people buying in to terrible anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and lashing out with irrational violence against Jews - I was hopeful that such a thing could not possibly happen in my home community of Hudson County, in Hoboken and Jersey City.  Sadly my eyes are open even wider to the endurance of anti-Jewish hatred in our world and even in our local community.  Trust me, we’ll be talking further about that over these High Holy Days as we remember the lives of our neighbors in Jersey City who were murdered in an act of anti-Jewish violence. 

And I imagine some of us began last year with a hopefulness that whereas this country has a terribly problematic racist past, we’re now more than 150 years since the Civil War, more than 50 years since the triumphs of the civil rights movement, more than 10 years since a Black man was elected as president,  and we may therefore have regarded racism as a theme of the American past but not of its present and future.  If that’s how we felt at the beginning of the last Jewish year,  my sense is that our eyes have been opened in new ways -both to the overwhelmingly disproportionate treatment by law enforcement that is part of the experience of most Black people in the United States, including those in our own Jewish community, and also to other ways that the legacy of racism continues to be felt and experienced today in this country which has always proclaimed the noble value that all people are created equal but has too often fallen short of its fulfillment.  And trust me: this, too, we’ll be talking further about over these High Holy Days. 

And I am sure there are yet more ways our eyes have been opened this year.  Truths each of us has learned about ourselves this year, for better or for worse.  How we deal with stress; how we deal with risk and uncertainty; how we prioritize our values under conditions of duress; how we soothe ourselves at moments of difficulty.  And truths we’ve learned about this country - and its freedoms and values and vulnerabilities and divisions. 


But here’s the thing about Hagar and Ishmael.  God opened Hagar’s eyes - but then God stood back. God opening Hagar’s eyes was only Step 1.   Next we read: ותרא באר מים ותלך ותמלא את החמת מים ותשק את הנער She saw the well - but then she had to go to the well (which was at some distance from her) - then she had to fill the bottle of water, then walk what the torah describes as the distance of an arrow shot over to her son and to give him the water and revive him.  God did not do any of those things for Hagar.  God simply opened Hagar’s eyes, and then Hagar figured out what next steps were possible and necessary. 


Our eyes may now be opened to our lives’ finitude - But it’s up to us to incorporate that knowledge into the way we live our lives, ונביא לבב חכמה - so that we can truly benefit from the wisdom and insight that such knowledge brings us.  Our eyes may now be opened to the commonality of all human beings, but it’s up to us to take the next step and to translate our empathy into action, to explore what we can do as individuals, as a community, and as a wealthy nation to meaningfully ameliorate the lives of those in need around the world for whom we may have developed a newfound empathy. And our eyes may now be opened to the ways that our actions affect others in ways that are big and small - but it’s up to us to use that knowledge to live differently, to see that balance scale before our eyes and to know that the future of others, even the future of the world, depends on what we decide to do next.


I so wish that my misplaced refrigerator magnet could really function like an incantation to guarantee that we could find all the things  we’ve lost this year -- because we’ve lost so much this year.  Including so many lost moments that we could have spent together, and so much lost time and lost opportunities to steer our world on a better path.   Sadly some of what we have lost is simply lost. 


At the same time, we pray that this coming year continues to be a year when God opens our eyes.
May this new year 5781 תשע’א be a year when we never miss an opportunity for insight and realization that will bring us ever closer to finding what we seek.  May it be a year when we emulate Hagar who took wise and decisive and life-sustaining action once God had opened her eyes.


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