Rabbi Paul’s Rosh Hashana Sermon 2023

A Mantra for When Life is Full of Stress

Sermon by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA

How wonderful! Our amazing Cantor Kyle Cotler. This magnificent orchestra. Our fabulous Or Ami chorale. And with Rabbi Lana Zilberman Soloway building out an impressive adult learning program and inspiring our youth, and all of us gathered together here and streaming in from all over the world, what a wonderful start of Jewish New Year 5784, abound with simchas and blessings, with hopes and dreams.

Except that “wherever we go, there we are.” And we bring with us into this new year all the realities of last year that no matter how much we might wish it, just don’t go *poof* and disappear. So many of us, in conversations with loved ones, in texts to friends, in sessions with therapists, and over coffee with your rabbi, are all commenting upon the same thing: That life out there is so full of stress, that we often want to pull back, circle the wagons, and just take care of ourselves.

It’s like that grandfather shopping in the supermarket with his 3-year-old grandson. The old man has his hands full with the child screaming for candy, cookies, you name it. Meanwhile, while the kid cries, the grandpa keeps saying in a controlled voice, “Easy William, we won’t be long… easy, boy.” Another outburst and the grandpa calmly says, “It’s okay, William, just a couple more minutes and we’ll be out of here. Hang in there, boy.”  At the checkout, the little shtunk is throwing items out of the cart and Grandpa says again in a controlled voice, “William, relax buddy, don’t get upset. Stay cool, William.” A woman who had watched the whole encounter leaves the store at the same time, approaches the grandfather, and says: “You were amazing in there. I don’t know how you kept your composure. William is very lucky to have you as his grandpa!” “Thanks,” said the grandpa, “But I’m William. The kid’s name is Kevin.”

Like William, so many of us are so overwhelmed, that we can’t wait to get back home to hide in our private space. Because the world. So broken. Our lives. So burdened. Our dreams. Too often dashed. Through the fires and floods, the heatwaves and hurricanes, the covid pandemic and the political polemics – we wake up each morning, fearing more and caring less. Wondering why we bother getting out of bed. Does it matter? What difference will I make?

We give in and make the words of Pirkei Avot (the Talmudic Sayings of our Ancestors) into a mantra: V’eizeh hu ashir? Who is rich?  Hasameiach b’chelko. The one who is content with their portion. “Find contentment with what you have,” They seem to say. “And just accept what is.” And so, many of us, facing the struggles of a world gone mad, do just that. We turn inward to block out the bad, focusing on our family, our friends, our communities, and ourselves. We turn away from the agony that always seems to surround us.

But where does that leave those who are suffering? Should we forget them? The young adults struggling to find purpose in a world on fire? The teens burning up through the onslaught of stress, anxiety, and depression? Hasameiach b’chelko. Are the rabbis really suggesting that we should simply be content with our own lot and forget about them?

And what about the walking wounded and the silently suffering, people of all ages who carry their pain within so those without needn’t know how broken they really are?

And what about the ones who are in denial? Believing that back in the good old days things were shinier and better, ignoring the fact that many, many suffered back then too.

And what about all those who have given up? Including the dangerously cynical ones who, disgusted with the politics of a demoralized nation, have decided to deliver success only for themselves, making their mantra DIY – do it yourself – do it for yourself. Is that the best wisdom from our rabbis? Hasameiach b’chelko? To shrink our field of vision so we don’t have to engage with all those others?

My friends, we are witnessing the worst, yet in our hearts we are desperately hoping for something more. And as antisemitism rises, we feel real fear, fear of the hatred coming at us from all sides, reminding us that when we allow hatred of others to flourish, of course antisemitism will follow. Because when others hate, it historically always comes back at us, the Jews.

Yet still we are afraid, and some have begun embracing the xenophobic tendencies that once foretold the rising of a nascent Nazi regime that destroyed everyone because it was easier to denigrate another’s differences than to struggle to embrace their inherent sameness. So they – and we – color code skin types, and categorize eye slants, and prioritize national origins, and decide that this one’s better and that one’s not, always forgetting that that’s what they used to say about us. And still do.

And we allow the fear to overwhelm the awe, until, violating the 3rd of the Ten Commandments, we take God’s name in vain to declare that we are better and they are not. Forgetting that we are all b’tzelem Elohim, all created as God’s children, meaning we are all infinitely worthy, blessedly unique, and undeniably equal.

The fear is real. And so the anxiety some feel is natural. But our reactions don’t have to be to lash out. At every moment, of every day, we have a choice. Like William the grandfather, when confronted in ways that might ignite our tempers, we can choose to temper our tendency to explode. Instead of sharing our love only with ourselves and our people, we can choose to stretch forth our hands to wipe the tears of the walking wounded.

It isn’t always easy to do the right thing. In fact, our rabbis understood that while we strive to exhibit chesed (kindness) and rachamim (compassion), we contain within us dueling tendencies.  Each one of us, they say, is born with two impulses, two voices inside of us, telling us what to do. It derives from a verse in Torah, Deuteronomy 6:5, the v’ahavta. We chant, “V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b’khol l’vavkha… You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart…” Here, the word for “heart” is written curiously. Instead of as lev, it is written l’vavkha, with two bets instead of the usual one. The rabbis pondered this twinning or doubling of the letter bet and in Mishnah Berakhot 9:5, they explained, “L’vavkha, With all your heart, meaning with your twin impulses, the evil impulse as well as the good impulse.’” The two bets reference two voices: yetzer hatov and yetzer harah.  One voice urges us to do compassionate things, to be generous and kind. That voice is called the Yetzer Hatov, the Good Urge. The other voice urges us to do selfish things, things that feel good for a moment but hurt us and others in the longer term. That voice is called the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Urge.

Other cultures hold similar ideas. The Cherokee Indians tell a story about two wolves inside of us, which are constantly fighting. Which wolf wins? They teach: Of course, the one we feed. Our rabbis similarly teach: Which yetzer directs our lives? The one we feed. So, let’s choose intentionally to feed the Yetzer Hatov, our inclination toward goodness, to care about the wellbeing of others.

I’m reminded of Itzik, a pious man from the Russian Pale, who spent his life devoted to chelko, his portion. He rose early to work as a baker, and after time with his wife and five children and studying Jewish texts, Itzik went to the synagogue to dust shelves, straighten books, and clear away papers.

One evening, he noticed a light appearing through the cracks in the ark. He opened the ark doors, and there before him was a beaming white light – radiating from Torah scrolls – hovering in mid-air.  And Itzik cried out, “What is this?” A soft voice emanated from the ark, saying, “It is I, an angel, a messenger from the God of your ancestors. I have come to offer you a wish.”

Itzik said, “A wish? What kind of wish? And why me?”

The angel responded, “The heavens have noticed all you do – how you clean the shul, how you study our tradition, how you care for your family, and take care of your community. You are deserving, so now, Itzik, you are being given one wish and one wish only – as a reward for your good heart. You may wish for anything you want – the choice is yours. I shall return tomorrow night, and you will tell me what you desire.”  And poof – just like that, the light disappeared.

Itzik lay awake that night deciding what his wish should be and all during the next day he pondered his choices. When the sun went down, Itzik went to the shul to clean. Again, the light came forth from the cracks in the ark. Itzik opened the ark doors, and the angel again spoke. “Itzik,” said the angel, “what is your wish?”

With a quivering voice, Itzik responded. “I have been thinking about this all night and all day and let me tell you – it has not been an easy choice.

“At first, I wanted to ask for money – lots of it – so I could buy fancy clothes and food and donate large sums to tzedakah.  But then I realized that although I am a simple baker, I have enough to buy clothes and food for my family, we have a small but comfortable house, and I give to tzedakah anyway. So I realized that I should not ask for money, because although I am not rich, as the rabbis taught, hasameiach b’chelko, I am comfortable with what I have.

“And then I was going to ask for fame. Doesn’t everybody want to be famous!?! But why do I need to be famous? I am needed here in this town, for my family, for the bakery, for the shul. “And although few know me outside of this village, as the rabbis taught, Hasameiach b’chelko– I am happy with who I am.

“And then I thought about asking for wisdom, but I spend every day reading our texts. I grow in wisdom with every word. And I love to study. If I was wise all of the sudden, what need would I have to study? I would miss that. So although I am not the smartest person in this village, hasameiach b’chelko, I am comfortable with that.

“And so, dear angel, I wish for…nothing. I am comfortable with who I am, what I have, and what I do. God has blessed me with all that I need. So, thank you… but no thank you.”

At that very second, poof. The light went out in the ark and the angel disappeared. Itzik was proud of his humble decision.

Then he heard something, a cry. He walked to the back of the sanctuary where he saw the rabbi – his wonderful rabbi – was crying. The rabbi told him that he had witnessed the whole encounter with the angel. Itzik, Believing the rabbi’s tears to be tears of joy, stood up straight, feeling proud, expecting to be praised by the rabbi for his humility. But instead the rabbi kept crying. Itzik asked, “Why are you crying”?

The rabbi said, “Itzik, you were given a gift – any wish that you wanted – and it would be fulfilled from the High Heavens. Yet you said you need nothing.” Itzik asked, “But what was wrong with that?”

The rabbi said, “Itzik, you could have wished for an end to hunger – and no one on this planet would go to bed without food tonight. You could have wished for an end to all disease – no one would ever again be ill or die before their time. You could have wished for an end to war – and it would have been granted – and nations would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks, And no one would ever die again in these senseless wars. Itzik, you could have changed the world, and yet you only thought of yourself, declaring hasameiach b’chelki, that you were comfortable with your portion.

“Itzik, that is why I am crying. So long as you were comfortable, you squandered a gift for all humanity. We lost a chance at improving our world because you valued your comfort over the opportunity for a better world. I can only pray that we have this kind of chance again.”

And with that, poof, the rabbi left.

Friends, in the messiness and brokenness of this world, it is too easy to embrace hasameiach b’chelko, to focus only on ourselves and our own comfort. To heed the voice of the yetzer hara, the evil urge to strike out at others when we feel threatened, to demean others when we feel downtrodden. To put our head in the sand until the sands of time swallow us up.

But to be a Jew is to recognize that chelkeinu, our portion in this world, is to witness the wounded and see their suffering, and push through the putrid polemics, to pursue a path toward wholeness and peace, for ourselves, yes. But for everyone else too.

To be a Jew is to dream l’vavecha, deep in your heart, for a better world for us all. Knowing that an angel of God is always speaking forth from out of that ark, hoping that we all would wish for something better, that we would rise up from hasameiach b’chelko, Turning our focus on our own comfort, into manifesting a vision of chesed (kindness) and rachamim (compassion) for everyone.

May this be the year we focus not just on wishing for ourselves, but on acting for others as well. That’s this rabbi’s wish. Maybe it can be yours too. L’shana tova tikateivu. May we be written for a better year.