Most of you know that I only give one sermon a year. Traditionally rabbis gave two. One on Yom Kippur and the other on Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover. I’m down to one. Of course, we’ve been gone for two years now, so I feel the liberty to say, “You might as well settle in.”
You know that we have traveled this past year and a half. We’ve been to four countries: Japan, India, Turkey and Egypt. The truth is I was quite burnt out after a generation of a life’s work, and we needed to see other worlds. Some time before that I began wondering if a rabbi can have a spiritual crisis. My crisis wasn’t G-d, I have a deep and abiding experience of what is holy in this world, I continue to believe in experiencing the presence of G-d in so many ways in this lifetime. I also have seen my blessings in life as unearned, as having their source in the Source of blessings outside of myself. In this, I was never a pretender of being a self made man. I am filled with gratitude often for my blessings, for my family, my home, my parents, my community and life. Mine was not so much a spiritual crisis as a crisis of spirit, of feeling godly within. Of feeling like I had the strength to continue serving.
Don’t get me wrong: we have lived our dreams. We have lived our vision. Most of you know of the vision that sustained our coming to Portland with the sun setting into green trees and candle light and melody and sumptuous food, and family and friends around the dinner table, engaged in meaningful conversation. You’ve experienced it. Tasted it.
Before Portland, I felt a kind of deep loneliness that recollects the words in the Garden, Lo Tov Heyot Adam L’vado: it is not good for the human being to be alone. Hence the search for Ezer k’negdo: a partner. It was in that loneliness that my burning desire to reach Jews who had disconnected and share with them the gift of our holy tradition and way of life. And since we’ve lived here, having welcomed thousands to our home, that we lovingly call Gesher: A Bridge Home, we have fulfilled that yearning: we have created a village, well represented in this room tonight. In every synagogue in Jewish Portland celebrating tonight, there are Jews who have crossed the bridge and found a home in the Jewish community. As I look into each of your eyes and know what we’ve shared, I certainly do not feel lonely.
But even in a life’s work that is centered in the intersection between our greatest passion and gifts one can over the course of twenty plus years burn out. 20 years left me quite burned out. When I think about burnout, I think about the hundreds of funerals in which I felt like I was dragging families up a mountain in a culture that doesn’t do death, that isn’t used to comforting the mourner and doesn’t prepare them with knowing the ritual of our beautiful tradition, by attending funerals as children. In the course of a generation, I’ve encountered hundreds of Unaffiliated Jewish families in which I could share my gift of being present and listen to the holy text of a loved one’s life and help begin the journey of mourning that allows one to eventually re-covenant with life. This journey was a familiar journey to me. My five year old brother Peter died when I was ten. Even then, I began to develop a fantasy life of visiting families in mourning and comforting them. No doubt it was a yearning to help my own family and me with mourning. It was years after graduating rabbinic school when I realized that it was my greatest gift: to comfort families in mourning. But, let’s face it, there’s a wear and tear factor. As there is to inviting thousands into your home and cooking meals and washing dishes so that Jews who feel like strangers could feel the implications of genuine welcome and have a taste of Jewish nourishment and joy, physical and spiritual. As there is to making our Passover seders dramatic so that Jews, who lack positive Jewish memories could experience the beauty, fun and depth of the memory of having once been slaves.
This past year and a half, we visited my beloved professor’s ancestral home in Iwaki, Japan. We inhaled the lush beauty of the Kashmir in the north of India and probed Egypt for a month, just a week before Tahrir Square demonstrations erupted to topple Mubarek. We visited six wonders of the world, three of them in Turkey, and this does not include the underground cities where up to 30,000 Christians fled and lived during dangerous periods of the Middle Ages.
Travel in and of itself was renewing. I loved the chaos and unpredictability of India. We were in Calcutta in the dead of summer: it was like Florida meets skid row. The heat was so sweltering that even starving babies didn’t cry. We were protected by our well air-conditioned hotel room, but being in the midst of the pain of others opened our hearts. Being touched by the pain of others distracted me from my own pain.
Our travels opened worlds in each of us. Yet, truthfully, I am not yet ready to return. I don’t yet feel I can peform many funerals. If I write eulogies, I’d prefer to bury people alive. I enjoyed burying Bob McCoy alive recently at his 60th birthday. But I don’t feel strong enough to climb the mountain of mourning with many families right now. I have realized of late that I suffer from depression. There are days when I am in touch deeply with life’s emptiness. When I wake in the middle of the night to an ominous feeling. I don’t know whether this is biological or psychological. I’m not sure that it matters. My father, of blessed memory, suffered from years and years of different depressions. He was a child of the Great Depression, he also suffered many bouts of depression that led to alcoholism and electro shock therapy. I used to say: I was a child survivor of his depressions. Maybe not without impact.
I know that I’m not alone in this. I read recently that half of America, it is predicted, will suffer some form of mental illness in their lifetimes. It is estimated that 38 percent of Europe currently suffers mental illness. Only a small percentage get help. I’ve gotten help, for which I am very grateful, but I realize some things:
I’ve always looked at the underbelly of life. I’ve always been drawn to the hard questions and the most important life’s quests. I’ve been a keen observer of what it takes to be resilient. I am always wanting to help someone search for deeper meaning, for a life’s partner, a life’s work. I’ve wanted to reach the unreachable. And in order to do this, I’ve often felt like a failure. Be willing to fail and admit it is what makes good outreach. If we aren’t on the edge, thinking we might not even have a minyan this Yom Kippur, we aren’t doing our work. It’s what has made me a good rabbi. It’s a part of who I am. No doubt, many have benefited.
This past week, I was moved by what I read of Dan Schechtman, who recently received the Nobel prize in chemistry, for finding a crystalline structure that had never been observed before and all the mathematical models at the time said that it was impossible. But Schechtman stuck to his guns. Linus Pauling dismissed his thinking and warned scientists away from him. He was kicked out of the lab he was working in. Only one lab in Israel would take him in. The next years were spent supporting and building the case for what he had observed. His discovery opened new worlds of thinking in chemistry. And so, this past week he was honored with the Nobel prize.
I was moved by what it took Dan Schechtman to achieve this. He needed to be able to look at life differently. He needed to swim upstream scientifically against the current of scientific community and thinking.
It inspired me to look up the number of Jews who have been giving Nobel Prizes. Wikipedia has everything! 22 percent of all Nobel Laureates were born to a Jewish parent. 22 percent. That’s over one fifth of all Nobel Prize winners. Less than one percent of the world, far less, receiving over one fifth of the Nobel prizes. Amazing. For a religion on the tree of religions that in population constitutes barely a twig among the world religions. But what an impact! Why? Because Judaism tells us to look at life differently. It tells all Jews to examine their lives in a different light.
I think that it is so intrinsically Jewish to do this. It is what Yom Kippur creates as a possibility. To examine our lives in a different light. To look at life from the vantage point of one who looks at life differently from the so-called “normal way of looking.”
I realized that that’s what we’ve been doing: we’ve been looking at life from a different cultural vantage point. We’ve welcomed strangers into our home in the thousands when most people are telling their children to fear strangers and through this, we’ve built a village that has helped us raise Avital and Michael into the passionate contributors to this world that they are.
Even in my most ominous moments, I know that I still have gifts to share. I may have a different resource set that I did when I was younger, but we still have dreams. We are concerned about our legacy and we dream of a national network of immersive homes, not only for Jews, but for all faiths, to help reconnect Americans to family, home and village life.
Oh, I know that I’ve missed the mark this past year. I’ve given in to distractions. I’ve hurt love ones. I’ve not followed through on my dreams. I made resolutions last year that I did not keep. Part of this was due to the overwhelming feeling like I was without resources. It’s why we need the beauty and power of the ominous Kol Nidre. Repeated three times in the fashion of the legal, it seeks to annul our past resolutions that fell short and it is such a gift. Especially when its intoned the way Avital chanted it.
Yom Kippur is a day all of us need: we need to share the burden of holding our lives up to a different light. To support each other in doing it. We need to admit failure. We need to be able to dream again. We need to begin again, fresh, leaving behind the cynicism and the defeats from this past year that fell short, to truly begin again. More than ever, I am aware that we cannot do this alone. The words at the end of Avinu Malkeinu call me: “Aseh IMANU tzedakah v’hesed.” Make righteous action and loving kindness WITH us. As we take aim at spreading Gesher type homes throughout the world, help us to spread the word. Give testimony to the impact of Gesher in your lives.
May we all be renewed in our dreams this year. May we all choose to examine our lives in a different light this day so that finds us willing to be like Dan Schechtman, to swim upstream against the currents of our day and celebrate deeply our being Jewish, Yisrael, Godwreslters, who choose to look at life differently and deeply. G’mar Hatima Tova. A good sealing to you and your loved ones in the Book of Life.