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Rosh HaShanah 2016: Control What We Can
Rosh HaShanah 5777
A woman approaches me. I recognize her. I know we’ve met somewhere, sometime. Unfortunately, as she gets near I realize I don’t remember when, where, or who she is. “Hi, Rabbi,” she says smiling before she asks, “Do you remember me?” “Of course,” I answer hoping our conversation quickly moves on to another subject. “What’s my name?” she tests me. Oy!
Has this ever happened to you? This name recognition question stumps me every once in a while. After all, I meet lots of people in lots of different places. What’s my best response? What would you say? Hastily, I might walk away while saying: “Sure I remember your name, don’t you?” Or, desperately I might look for someone nearby to recognize her and help me by saying, “Hi, It’s good to see you Sarah.” Or, the better but embarrassing answer. I ought to say, “No, I’m sorry. Please remind me. What’s your name?”
Why does this recognized but unknown woman put me on the spot? What is she trying to prove? It’s not to embarrass or even to test me. It’s to affirm who she is. Each and every one of us seeks a sense of place and recognition. We crave relationship and relevance.
“Eternal God, how majestic is Your name throughout the earth! Who are people that You have regard for us, human beings that You take notice?” We marvel in faith that God notices us. We cringe in reality when people don’t. In a large and vast world we each desire and require address and attention.
Witness those crying out over the past many months. Deranged individuals who act out to get our attention. Who hurt and kill the enemies they perceive. It’s painful to bear all that we’ve watched recently in Orlando, San Bernardino, Paris and Nice, Dallas, Baton Rouge, New York City, and elsewhere. It’s difficult to witness. I don’t think it’s hard to understand.
Human beings crave attention. In this large, vast world, each and every one of us seeks a sense of place and importance. Those who aren’t able to achieve their proper place impose it on us by interfering with a social order they believe excludes them.
Those who attack us demonstrate their feelings of isolation and loneliness through evil and hate. They believe they are outcasts, socially or politically alone and abandoned. They think they’re making right offenses done to them. Even though their response is tragically wrong, even though they corrupt beliefs to justify their venom, even though we must defend and protect ourselves against them, their bad acts result from their desperation.
Each and every one of us seeks a sense of place and recognition. We crave relationship and relevance. It’s an ancient, eternal human quest. Even for our Biblical ancestors. When God informs Abraham and Sarah they will become parents they laugh, unconvinced. Sarah is nervous. Perhaps she’s afraid for the future.
Sometime after God’s promise of a child to Abraham and Sarah, they travel to Gerar. There Abraham misrepresents his wife Sarah to be his sister and gives her over to King Abimelech. Abraham fears there is no sense of God, no code of ethics in Gerar. He claims to worry for his and Sarah’s lives. This deception is their protection.
How do we imagine Sarah feels at that moment improperly introduced and given to a foreign king? Ignored? Abandoned? Unappreciated? Exploited? Though God protects her from harm and indignity in this story, does this charade impact her sense of self and self-worth? Think of a time when you felt belittled. Recall a circumstance when someone took advantage of you for their own advancement. Admit it. It hurts to feel alone and insignificant.
After this experience God remembers Sarah. “The Eternal God took note of Sarah, as promised.” Isn’t that all we ask? Remember us. Family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, even strangers who cross our paths, take note of us. Appreciate us for who we actually are. Remind us of our personal worth as we make our way through life’s obstacles day in and day out. French philosopher Simone Weil inspires us. “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
Our ancient rabbis read human aspirations into this scene. God remembers Sarah because she is a good woman. Sarah is a person of mitzvah and good deeds. She is an individual whose personal character recommends her. Sarah, a woman misrepresented, deserves, as do we all, to be recognized.
That’s it. We all want to be recognized. Look at how excited people get, especially children, when they see themselves on the Jumbotron screen at a baseball game dancing or smiling or kissing. Listen to how proud people are counting how many “likes” their pictures receive on Instagram or how many notice what they post on their Facebook pages and blogs.
You manage what you want us to know about you when we react to what you share. You decide what to show us. You direct what you want us to think of you. You look for our reactions. When you are not in control, you get frustrated. You feel a diminished sense of self and personal purpose. We all do.
That’s what troubles so many of us these days. Especially as we follow national and international events. We’re not in control. So many things are happening around us or to us. We feel insignificant and ignored. Who cares what we think? We’re frustrated. Just like I imagine our Biblical matriarch Sarah was.
At this complicated moment of challenge and change we crave recognition for who we are. We search for meaning. We want to express what matters to us. And, next month translate our values into our votes.
I suspect some of you might be wondering what I will say about the election in my sermon today. Well, actually I’m talking about something else! I’m thinking with you about the backdrop to this disturbing, embarrassing, and perplexing election campaign. Let’s clear our heads. Let’s raise our spirits.
Our votes will be for or against the presidential candidates. Their high negative ratings are part of what make this an unusual election. Our perceptions of these candidates result from their behaviors and choices. Not ours. Let’s learn from this. Whenever and wherever we can be in control, we must make responsible choices – for our sakes, for the sake of our reputations, for the sake of our society.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer says it best. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” It’s that wisdom we seek. The Talmud teaches some things are beyond our control including the span of our lives, relief for our troubles, and the future we face.
Most intriguing, the Talmud reminds us that we cannot control what other people think of us or what is in their hearts. As Thomas Merton reminds us, “It is a foolish life which is lived in the minds of other human beings.” In other words, we can’t prevent the world from ignoring us. We can only choose how to respond.
Hear this promise. God remembers us. Always. Hear this truth. Life’s mystery is God’s reality. Hear this idea. We believe God is eternal. We are not. We believe God is spiritual. We are not. God’s existence is eternal and spiritual in contrast to our temporal and physical being. Hear this reality. There are limits on our great human strengths and abilities. Personal power and purpose in life result from identifying what we can and cannot control.
In a snapshot of angst and aggravation, 65% of Americans currently believe our nation is heading in the wrong direction. Maybe so, maybe no. In a world of mass trends, economic conglomerates, and billions of people, as individuals I sense we feel alone and ignored. Other than vote and volunteer where we can bring help, what can we do? That’s what I’m discussing with you. Not who to vote for but who to be.
We need to change our focus. To reframe our question. To redirect our energies. Let’s ask ourselves if we are heading in the right or wrong direction. Let’s concentrate on the character and quality of who we each are and how we live our days.
I’m not retreating. I’ll never suggest retrenching from a needy and hurting world. I’ll never ask you or me not to do all we can to help and to heal. I believe, however, that the only way you and I can enter into and make a difference in the larger world is first to turn inward and rediscover our values and replenish our souls. You and I have to sustain ourselves if we’re going to be in any position to support anyone else.
A microbrewery produces smaller amounts of beer than a large-scale corporate brewery. Microbrews distinguish themselves by emphasizing quality over quantity. As a result, the larger producers take note and seek to improve their product in response to consumer demand. It can work the same way for us. As caring and compassionate individuals, people who know what’s right and what matters, we can greatly influence social trends if we hold to our principles and beliefs, if we’re clear to ourselves about who we are and what is important to us.
Be careful and be clear. Current events, world events, political events, the routine reporting of bad news day in and day out are not usually our personal involvements. They form a backdrop to what we do. They create an environment for all we feel. They affect our mood as we go about our business. They are not the character and quality of what we do, or more importantly, of who we are.
We live lives separate from and connected to everything around us. We focus on our efforts at work and raising our families at home. We concentrate on our communal endeavors and personal interests. We strive to be healthy, content, and in relationship with others. Optimism should be our mood this Rosh HaShanah. Our daily purpose is to live the lives we imagine for ourselves. To fulfill our dreams as we respond to the needs of those we care for and love.
In a large and foreboding world downsize your outlook. Live the life you require. Live the life toward which you aspire. There is little you and I can do about the condition of the world. There is much we can do about the condition of our lives. There is little you and I can do about circumstances we can’t control. There is much we can control about the character of our response to whatever occurs.
There’s little you and I can do to stop terror. There’s much we can do not to be afraid.
There’s little you and I can do to stop greed. There’s much we can do to be generous.
There’s little you and I can do to stop hatred. There’s much we can do to bring respect.
There’s little you and I can do to stop evil. There’s much we can do to be good.
There’s little you and I can do to stop vulgarity. There’s much we can do to speak quality.
There’s little you and I can do to stop callousness. There’s much we can do bring compassion.
Originally written for Rosh HaShanah, in the familiar prayer Aleinu we declare God is Sovereign. We accept our responsibilities. We seek “l’taken olam b’Malkhut Shaddai, to repair the world in the sovereignty of God almighty.”
The truth is there’s little we can do to repair the world. There’s much we can do to repair, to shape, and to care intimately for a world, the immediate world of our families and friends, our community, the world of people with whom we interact, whom we know.
Don’t worry if it seems the world is ignoring you. Don’t despair for all you cannot control. God remembers you. God empowers you. Your loved ones care for you. Your community embraces you. When you feel left out and alone, reach out to others. Notice them. Remember them. Care for them. They’re feeling what you are. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
This New Year, in a large and foreboding world, downsize your outlook. Live the life you require. Live the life toward which you aspire. If there is little you and I can do about circumstances we can’t control, let’s do much to control the character of our response to whatever occurs.
The next time I don’t know someone’s name, I’ll ask for it.
I came to Chizuk Amuno Congregation in July 2004 to serve as this synagogue community’s seventh Senior Rabbi. Teaching is the rabbinic role I find most enjoyable. Celebrating and observing the sacred, personal moments of people’s lives is the experience of being a rabbi that means the most to me. Helping to build and form the character and values of a synagogue community is the rabbinic work about which I am the most passionate. Prior to moving to Baltimore, I served for 21 years as rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.