There is a story told long ago of a bird — the most beautiful bird in the world — which flew into a kingdom. The king immediately took notice of the bird, for its feathers were radiant and it flew swiftly and with great majesty. The king realized that although he owned many riches and could travel to nearly any place in the world, he did not have a beautiful bird such as this one.
He saw that the bird had perched itself carefully atop a very high tree, and hoped that if he could somehow capture this bird, then he would be part of the most beautiful thing in the world. He stood atop his royal ladder and reached but couldn’t quite get to the bird. So he ordered the people of his kingdom to capture the bird for him.
First, the kingdom’s finest scientists came together and they created a device that would imitate the sounds of fellow birds encouraging the beautiful bird to come down from the tree. They tried, but it did not work and they had to return home.
Then the king’s magicians created a spell to make the bird come down into the king’s cage so he could have the bird as his own. They tried and tried. But their spell did not work either. The bird stayed perched atop the highest tree in the kingdom.
So the king approached all of his people and challenged them. He told them to join together and reach, forming a human ladder with the strongest of the people on the bottom, the next group on their backs and shoulders, then another level of people and so on, until they could reach the top of the tree to capture that bird.
So that’s what they did, every single person in the kingdom. Finally the youngest, smallest child of all climbed on. She climbed shoulder after shoulder upon the members of her community and finally got up to the top of the human ladder. Held up by the strength of her people, she went to reach for the bird and…she reached and she reached and …
She reaches still. Tonight she is all of us, stretching – beckoning – towards another New Year. Some years that stretch is invigorating; other years it is decidedly painful. Some of us are looking back fondly on a year that held a special simcha or two, an important milestone, a grand achievement. Others are reeling from a year that took more than it gave. Still, we do what we have always done: we hold it all. We reach for each other, hoping to bring some sweetness to those who are stung… and just maybe a bit of a sting to those whose cups are overflowing. Because life changes on a dime; we know it well. “Cambia, toda cambia,” goes the chorus of a song by the late Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa. “Change. Everything changes.” Is it any wonder that a variation of the word Shana is “l’hishtanot…” to change? May it be so for us all – a good turning. A good change.
In his book The Power of Hope, Rabbi Maurice Lamm points out that “hope injects tension into our beings. The tension of the bow that stretches to propel the arrow. But the tenser the string,” Rabbi Lamm adds, “the more powerful the arrow in flight. And you don’t always have to go it alone. One of the things that gives us hope is community, after all.”1
With the awareness that this will be the first New Year that you and I start in the same place and will complete in different ones, I have so many hopes for you. My heart is also filled with all I have seen in you, and learned with you in the past four years. I give you these recollections and these hopes tonight.
It’s not unlike turning a kaleidoscope, this prospect of looking at ourselves from the outside in and asking, who have we become together? I have seen you come to take yourselves more seriously without losing any of the lightness and joy that are hallmarks of B’nai Tikvah. You know it for sure now: that being part of a community… part of a holy venture… is not just about coming together to pray. It’s also about helping each other to be better. It’s about listening to our highest selves; the ones we mean always to be! And it’s about seeing those heights, those aspirations in each other. Sometimes it’s easier to draw that best out of someone who isn’t, well… us. This is sacred work; never doubt it. There is a Talmudic saying which teaches that “every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, Grow! Grow!” You have been each other’s blades of grass, and you have been each other’s angels. I have seen it.
I have also seen you grow from your grief. For some of you, new family ties and configurations have risen from the ashes of the old. For others, the loss of a spouse, a sibling or a dear friend still has a surreal quality that leaves you reeling. As our congregation ages – just a little – I have witnessed many of you navigate the new ground of a life without parents; what the poet Linda Pastan calls “the place in books where part one ends, and part two begins, and there is no part three.” Mourning and absence are not questions to be answered, but valleys to walk through as the Psalmist so wisely taught. I have seen you comfort each other, and I have seen you receive comfort from each other. You have given life to the teaching in our prayer book which holds that “in truth grief can be a great teacher when it sends us back to serve and bless the living.” For those of you who are walking through that valley still, on this night, I believe that you too will know some measure of healing in time. Know that I hold that faith for you on any day that you cannot, whatever separate paths we travel.
I have seen you grow stronger in your collective belief that you are a force for good, understanding and blessing in our wider community and world. Whether through the hands-on acts of lovingkindness B’nai Tikvah has always done, new forms of social justice work on the front lines, or simply making our synagogue greener, I have seen you become more than you have been.
I’ve learned from you too. I’ve learned that coming to a new place in the spirit of curiosity and commitment is never wasted. And that the venture that follows is fruitful indeed. Thanks in particular to the characteristically understated and always magnificent guidance and capacity for listening of our Rabbi Emeritus, Raphael Asher, I learned that I could step into your story. I learned that I could try new things that would soon come to be regarded as traditions. And I learned that I could make mistakes and be given the space to try again differently. I learned that in time… only in time… we would knit ourselves together, and write the next chapter of our story. I learned that whatever happened, we would remain part of each other. And so we have… and so we will
I learned what true generosity looks like from you when Jonah came into our lives. It wasn’t just the blankets or the books or the outfits, though I will say thanks to you, he has been cozy, well read and an exceedingly sharp dresser since the day we brought him home! It was the cards and letters telling us that you adopted your children too. Or that you yourselves are adopted. That the three of us would never be alone in navigating this uniquely miraculous, joyful and challenging journey into family life. What’s more, you surrounded Jonah with the kind of love Michael and I had only dreamed of. To watch him tear around after many of your children while they laugh together now is to watch someone feel in his bones that Temple is his home. And that’s the wish I have for all of us. No congregation could have been more understanding or expansive than this one in modeling not only what a Jewish community is, but also what one does.
So returning to the words of Rabbi Lamm, and the tension and excitement of hope that he muses on, what are my hopes for you in this New Year, and in the new years to come?
Because make no mistake: the challenges ahead are formidable. “Ein kemach, ein Torah,”2 our rabbis taught. Without bread, there is no Torah. Without enough material sustenance, there is no learning, no prayer, no communal good to stay committed to. We do always seem to have about half as much money as we need… half as many volunteers and staff as we wish for. The inventiveness and individual ingenuity that animates the Bay Area too often dominates to the understanding, taken for granted in generations past, that synagogue affiliation is good for the soul – not to mention a gift for the generations to come. In short, it is all too easy to feel that we are straining under the weight of that human ladder, reaching for a singularly beautiful bird, but too insubstantial to bear the weight of those limbs above us! As the New Year comes into focus, what we see together, what we learn together and what we hope – together – is that we are now and always in it together.
I hope you will keep reaching. Like that unnamed girl balancing precariously, yet held steady by the foundation of her people, I hope that you continue aspiring to joy, understanding, and menschlichkeit. I hope you will continue to have conversations that matter, even when they are hard. I thank you – how I thank you – for giving me a place, a voice, a chapter in the story.
In the chapters to come, you will find more stories, more voices, more wings waiting to take flight.3 You will find the ending you need most. You will find the beginning too.
1 “Sound and Spirit: Borderlands.”