Rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon – 5779
In 1991, the groundbreaking play “Angels in America” by the phenomenally gifted Tony Kushner premiered at our own Eureka Theater in San Francisco. Part One, called “Millenium Approaches” opened perhaps ironically and perhaps not, with a funeral. The grandmother of one of the main characters was eulogized as one among many who risked everything in order to make that perilous crossing to these shores, leaving behind the only homes in Europe they had ever known. They hoped to escape conditions that had become barely survivable for Jews in the hopes of building better ones here. And so she did. And so her entire generation of immigrants did. And we know now what they only learned later, or perhaps never had the chance to find out: that these waves of immigrants were the lucky ones.
Speaking in her memory, the fictitious and elderly rabbi (in other words, a rabbi nothing like yours!) said that while he did not know her, he knew her. “She was not a person but a whole kind of person,” he said. “She carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home. You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles of that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is.”1
We know her too. No matter who we are, no matter what each of us is thinking, hoping, praying for, celebrating this Rosh Hashanah morning, we have all come here from somewhere else.
From southern deserts? Or eastern shores, which as Jeremy pointed out so aptly, have their own way of feeling foreign at times! Think further back to other voyages, crossings, stories. Black and white photographs in silver frames of bubbes and zaydes and their bubbes and zaydes who risked everything. Many left behind gravesites and relatives they would never see again. Who were they? What were their names? Some we may never know. Some were welcomed here. Some were taunted. Some worked hard and some languished, never quite feeling at home again. Some fought for everything they had so that their children might not have to. Some never quite figured out how not to fight when they didn’t have to. Some threw themselves into the labor movement and resettlement of other refugees, understanding how hard it is to become one. Others couldn’t bear to remember, and others couldn’t forget fast enough.
What they all have in common is that they were border crossers. And the commonality they bequeathed to us – stubbornly, determinedly, mythically — is their journey. Every day. In us, that journey is.
It’s a story that begins even further back, at the very beginning. The settled quality life might have had in the Garden of Eden flipped into expulsion and wandering almost in the next breath. The narrative theology of Torah has always concerned wanderers — journeymen and women who by choice or circumstance were on their way to somewhere else as a rule, not an exception. Torah moves! In their places of origin, on their journeys and upon reaching their hoped for new destinations, our forebears discovered nearly boundless resilience. There was conflict, there were wars, tragedies; dreams unfulfilled, ordinary sadness. There were also moments of great spiritual epiphany, of individual blossoming and communal growth. All because in crossing a border – any border – slavery to freedom to wilderness, Jerusalem to Babylonia and back, land to sea to land again, we become something other than who we might have been. We carry the poetry of borders with us in the Psalmist’s lament: “How can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?”2 The answer came slowly, haltingly, but it came. We sang. Still we sang.
Borders are complicated, to be sure. Look at Abraham, such a consummate journeyer that the term is etched into his very name, as in Lech L’cha the Torah calls him “Avraham haIvri.” Abraham the Hebrew, and quite literally according to the root of the word Ivri, “the one who crosses over.” It’s not difficult to be inspired by his late in life willingness to leave the familiar behind and make a passage to the great unknown. But this morning, in the Torah verses we just heard, he crosses a very different border. Emboldened or perhaps blinded by faith, he took his treasured son up that mountain determined to heed God’s word once more, but this time to sacrifice the boy. In his mind, each step forward may have been bringing him closer to the Divine, while in reality each took him further and further away from his better self. True, Isaac was saved at the eleventh hour by the voice of an angel calling out, “Don’t lay a hand on that child; don’t put even one little mark on him!” Isaac was unbound. And together they walked back down the mountain.
Can you imagine?! Could Abraham ever have been the same? Could Isaac, on the other side of a border no child should know?! The Torah never tells us, but the stories of Isaac’s future as a husband and father suggest that the echoes, the trauma of this particular crossing never really left him. And Sarah? A midrash suggests that upon seeing her husband and son making their way back to her, she was so overcome she died on the spot! Some borders are almost too dark to bear.
What of another triangle, this one described in our Haftarah reading? Hannah, wife of Elkanan, so desperate for a child that her fervent prayer in the Temple was at first thought to be a drunken rant by Eli the Kohen. How her honesty floored him, and brought his compassion to life. That was a border crossing too, for both of them. And when Hannah became a mother at last, when her son Samuel was old enough, she brought him to Eli’s service for the rest of his days, eventually paving the way for him to become the leader and teacher of his people during the age of the Prophets. Some borders hold light, and hope.
We are heir to a heritage of borderlands and possibilities, of dreams made manifest and creativity born of questioning and restlessness. Yet some of the most significant border crossings we know are also the least visible. Those are the ones that happen inside of us when we face seemingly ordinary passages. To become a parent, or to lose one, or to lose the remaining one is to cross a border. To drive away from the family home for the last time because it’s been sold to another family with little ones of their own, and downsizing is the best choice anyway, and how long were we going to keep storing multiple sets of holiday dishes that the grown kids didn’t want? Look around for a moment. Empty nesters, nestlings starting kindergarten (or college!) recent B’nai Mitzvah, transplants to California, Jews by choice, non-Jews raising Jewish children. Those who are transgender. Those facing infertility much like our Haftarah’s Hannah, with no clear picture of what might be, only the pain of feeling it was never supposed to be like this. Hearts sore from divorce or separation or loss of work… to live and breathe in this world is to cross borders. Every day. In her book Truth and Beauty, writer Author Ann Patchett evokes this truth beautifully, as she reflects on the night she learned her best friend and fellow writer, Lucy Grealy, had died of an apparent overdose. “At three o’clock in the morning, I drove to (my boyfriend) Karl’s house and when I woke him up and told him what I knew I started to cry, because I had just begun the second half of my life, the half that would be lived without Lucy.”3 Sooner or later we all cross a border like this one. Whether through joyous or painful life cycle events, or experiences and transitions we never saw coming, whether we chose a particular border or had it thrust upon us without warning… we cross. And we come out different on the other side. Everything is suddenly demarcated into a before and an after; We wonder if we, or if life will ever feel the same. Hint: no. Never quite exactly.
On this ground, a new year begins. Rosh Hashanah is everything we say it is: the birthday of the world, a fresh beginning, a time to deeply consider and reconsider our lives, our actions, our choices. And it is one thing more. Rosh Hashanah is the act of making borders permeable. When we risk a new possibility even if it flies in the face of all the voices that would tell us we’re too old, it’s too late, this friendship is done with, that next step just disappeared… and instead we remember that we are children of Abraham the Ivri, and that means we too are intrepid ones, ones who cross over. So we take the first step on a trail not yet blazed. We extend a hand across the breach of silence and misunderstanding and offer humility, and our willingness to participate in teshuvah instead. And sometimes we acknowledge that there are acts or people we have tried to forgive, but we just can’t. And we need to stop trying. Letting go is crossing a border too.
On Rosh Hashanah our borders shift and our hearts are made larger, opening to more compassion than we might have thought possible. Maybe that’s why through all our wanderings, all our journeys and our crossings, there is one border we are admonished not to violate. That’s the one whose other side has no memory. The one that would beckon us into a false sense of security, as if to say “this way lies sameness and comfort and no obligation to the vulnerable around you. You’re not like them! That was such a long time ago, after all.” Not for us, that border. “Remember the stranger,” we are reminded instead. Again, and again … and again. The Torah does not tell us to remember the stranger regardless of ethnicity or religion or customs or educational background or language, because it doesn’t have to. We are asked to do but one thing: to understand that the struggles so many face now are the struggles we faced then. And when cries of pain and vulnerability from the borderlands – any borderlands – reach our ears in settled places – any settled places – we remember. In us that journey is… still. We empathize. And we the Ivrim, the ones who cross over work for the day that our borders here (gesture in) and there (gesture out) may ever be ones of safety and sanctity… and never ones of cruelty and injustice.
When I was about four, I attended our local JCC Nursery School with a young Asian American boy named Vincent Ho. Along with finger-painting and how to make buttermilk, we learned the rituals around the cycle of Jewish Holidays, starting right about now. Vincent went home excitedly, as we all did, impatient to tell his mom all about how Rosh Hashanah was coming and soon they would eat apples and honey for a sweet year. His mother was faced with the task of having to utter a sentence she probably never saw coming. “Oh, that’s lovely but the thing is, Vincent… honey, we’re not Jewish.” Without missing a beat, my friend countered, “How do you know?”
Where Vincent Ho is today I’m not sure, but I like to imagine that this story is remembered as affectionately in his family as it is in mine. And that somewhere, somehow, it planted a seed of understanding that in questioning who we are, discovering what we are not, and questioning that too, we all have the potential to create something vital and interesting and new.
As this parent told her son he wasn’t Jewish, all these years later, her response begets another question. How will we show our children that we are?
By pursuing justice.
By telling and retelling old stories.
By creating new ones.
By demonstrating that as long as we’re breathing it is not too late for honest teshuvah… for another start.
By helping others whose feet stumble at the border.
By being compassionate with ourselves compassion when we cross, and it is painful… and we need help.
Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Ruler of time and space, the Transforming One to those who cross over.
As we walk forward in the footsteps of our ancestors, Ivri’im and Ivri’ot, dynamic border crossers, all – bless us with courage in this new year – to embrace new paths, to be loving guides to our fellow travelers, and to lift up this beautiful, difficult, wondrous world, hold it close and make it better.
In us may this journey be.
Ken Y’hi Ratzon – let it be God’s will.
1 “Angels in America,” pp. 10-11.
3 Ann Patchett, Truth & Beauty, p. 252.