Wholeness and Brokenness

ROSH HASHANAH SERMON - SEPTEMBER 30, 2019 (5780)        

Three weeks ago, my 25-year-old daughter – with whom I am very close and who has never lived more than a few miles away from me – landed a fantastic job. In Santa Barbara. Three days later, the entire right side of my face became paralyzed. I had trouble talking, eating, and drinking. One of my eyes refused to blink. I could not smile. I guessed correctly that I had come down with a condition known as Bell’s Palsy. I’m not totally back to normal yet, but I’m getting there. No one knows for sure what the cause is. It’s a virus, but it is not contracted from anyone else and you can’t give it to anyone either. Lowered immune system, and stress are named as possible factors but its origin remains elusive. It strikes men, women, young and older people seemingly at random.

         It was the first time in my life that I had ever experienced any kind of visible disability or disfigurement. And how ironic that my physical condition reflected how I felt about my daughter’s move. On the one hand, I was so happy for her, not just for having this wonderful job opportunity, but for having the chance to experience a totally new environment and meet new people, have new experiences and challenges. I had even actively encouraged her to seek these things out. My own life was richer for having moved away from home at 18 and living in various places. I certainly wanted that for her.

         Yet, part of me was frozen in fear and sadness. I was used to spontaneous coffee meetups and dinners and shopping. This would no longer be possible on a regular basis. I was just going to miss her so much. And my face reflected this duality of emotion.

And I admit that I have felt great shame talking to people. I tried to hide it as best I could by avoiding direct eye contact, but it’s hard to disguise the fact that only one side of your mouth is working while the other side is taking a nap!

To complicate matters, the week this happened, I was due to officiate at the wedding of my best friend’s daughter in Boston. I let the family know immediately what had happened to me, and I told them that I would totally understand if they wanted to find another officiant, one who would not ruin their wedding photos. “You’re a nurse,” I told my friend. “You know exactly what I look like right now, and it’s not pretty.”

         They were shocked by the very notion of my not being there for what they deemed to be a trivial reason.

         “It’s YOU we want, no matter what,” they informed me over my protests. Their sincere compassion and lovingkindness made me cry. In fact, I’ve experienced so much kindness from friends and even random strangers who witnessed my plight and told me of someone they knew who also had this condition and totally recovered.

         Right before the wedding ceremony, the DJ came up to me and said, “Are you ok? You look upset.” For some reason, I blurted out: “I feel like a freak!” He said, “I totally understand. But these people really want you here. My mother had Bell’s. She had to get over the emotional part first, and eventually she did recover. You will too.”

         I later said to him after the ceremony, “You could have ignored me and walked away, but you chose not to. You made a huge difference by reaching out and I really want to thank you.” I’ll never forget that.

         I’ve had a lot of time to step outside my own personal feelings and reflect on my ordeal. I’ve thought a lot about not only visible suffering but also invisible (or internal) suffering. We live in a world of 24/7 communication, and every day we see people who are hurting and suffering across our communities, our country, our world. We all surely know someone who is hurting or grieving – illness, some form of loss. Maybe it’s physical or mental illness, job loss, death, end of a relationship, anxiety, self-doubt, fear.  Some pain is visible, but some pain is not.

         Every one of us probably knows someone who is suffering in silence, who is hurting on the inside. They just don’t want you to know. Maybe they feel too ashamed to tell anyone what is happening to their soul, about the brokenness they are feeling.

         This is the time of year when we are supposed to make amends with God for any transgressions we may have committed. We are also supposed to ask forgiveness from the people in our lives whom we may have hurt.

         The words guilt and shame come up around these holidays. I believe that it’s good and right to feel some measure of guilt for things we know we have done wrong. As human beings, we are not perfect, nor are we meant to be. We can use our feelings of guilt to do better in our lives. Not in the temporary way like New Year’s Eve resolutions that you know are totally forgotten by January 3rd. But a real commitment to a fundamental change in even one aspect about ourselves we want to improve.

I challenge you to wake up every morning, and before your mind starts racing down your “to do” list, remind yourself that today you will work on that one aspect of yourself that in your heart of hearts you know could be better, could help you improve not only your own sense of self-worth but the lives of those you touch.

         I am not, however, a fan of the word “shame”. Yes, I know I told you I felt shame for my physical condition. What compounded that shame is the fact that I knew that I would get better while others who were suffering would not. My scars would heal but for many others, those scars would be permanent.

         Yet shame is really counter-productive. It doesn’t help you improve yourself. In fact, it tears away at you. It paralyzes you from saying, “Yes, I can do better. I can find one thing about myself that I want to improve.”

My goal for the coming year is to be more compassionate with people. Before this happened to me, I thought I knew what that meant. But I really didn’t. Yes, I’ve comforted those who are hurting, I’ve made pastoral visits in homes and hospitals. But I don’t think I ever looked deep enough into someone else’s pain the way I do now. If I could ask one thing of you in the coming year, it’s to take the time to look deeper at those around you and see how you can be of service. A kind word really does go a long way.

Today we listen to the sounds of the Shofar. I would like you to think of these sounds as a reflection of life. You will hear four distinct sounds: T’kiah: long notes. Think of this as wholeness. Shvarim: Middle length notes. Think of this as sign of wear and tear on our hearts. Truah: Short notes. Think of this as brokenness.

You’ll notice, however, that these notes are mixed together in various combinations: short, long, medium – as though the sounds of the Shofar reflect the reality of our lives: sometimes we experience pain and confusion and brokenness only to rebuild our lives to where we can feel happy and whole. Sometimes we feel worn down and tired, but then something happens that helps us regain our wholeness.

         The final sound you will hear is the T’kiah G’dolah. Think of this as the sign of hope. This is the wholeness we strive for every day. But our lives are a moment-to-moment achievement. We can’t feel whole all the time. But every moment we succeed in taking a step towards wholeness is success.  And if you can help someone else take a step toward wholeness, you have performed the most noble of mitzvot – of sacred commandments – and made the world just a little bit better. And for that – in advance – I thank you. 

         I wish you peace in your heart, wholeness in your day-to-day lives, laughter and joy in your soul. I wish you blessings and an abundance of love and compassion.        

Shana Tovah!

One Mitzvah at a Time -- The Torah Portion "Tsav"

  PRESENTED 3/23/19 AT CONGREGATION BET SHALOM, TUCSON, ARIZONA      

Last year, with the help of my family and a few friends, I founded the San Diego Outreach Synagogue a small, independent congregation in San Diego. We hold Friday night services once a month and began holding holiday celebrations with Purim and look forward to our first Passover Seder. Our Friday night services are held in a local Recreation Center and we provide a vegetarian dinner after the service to 35-45 people. And we’re growing!

         We are required to be completely cleared out of the rec center by 8:00 pm, which means that at 7:35, I announce that it’s time for us all to clean up, and everyone goes into action. Tables and chairs are put away, leftover food is packed up, musical equipment is loaded onto carts, and utensils, paper goods, prayer booklets, etc are all packed into our three portable plastic bins, the floor is swept, and trash is taken out. With everyone’s help, we always have our rented room completely cleaned up and get all our attendees and belongings out of the building by 8:00.

         During this clean-up process several months ago, I grabbed a broom and began to sweep the floor. Someone came up to me and said, “You should not be doing that!” In other words, this was a job that was just too menial for the head of a religious community to be doing. I was moved by her kindness and thoughtfulness but assured her that it was totally fine and I was happy to do it.

         Yet this comment stuck with me. To me, in creating this beautiful community, we are all in it together. Yes, I’m the one leading the service and providing a few words of Torah that I hope will offer insight into coping with the challenges of contemporary life. But really, underneath it all, I’m still just Cheri. The Cheri who drags herself out of bed to go to the gym, who worries about her adult children and little dogs, who is concerned about doing and saying the right thing to those who ask for guidance, etc. So it would just never occur to me that any job connected with our new synagogue would be something I should not be doing. After all, I am part of a whole community, and for that community to actually feel whole, we all have to do our share and realize that no task is too small for any of us to do.

         So, it was of great interest to me to read a commentary by Rabbi Benjamin Spratt of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York about this week’s Torah Portion, Tsav, in which he addresses a really important question: With the incredible amount of sacrifice that went on at the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary the Israelites used in the desert after escaping from Egypt) on a daily basis, who actually was in charge of the daily clean up of ashes and charred remains? The answer is not “the janitorial crew” or even “the Levites.” Actually, it was the Kohanim themselves, including Aaron.

Chapter 6, verse 4 states:

 וּפָשַׁט, אֶת-בְּגָדָיו, וְלָבַשׁ, בְּגָדִים אֲחֵרִים; וְהוֹצִיא אֶת-הַדֶּשֶׁן אֶל-מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, אֶל-מָקוֹם טָהוֹר.

“And he shall put off his garments, and put on other garments, and carry forth the ashes without the camp unto a clean place.” According to the Biblical commentator Rashi, this was such a messy task that the Kohen Ha’Gadol (High Priest) first changed into dirty clothes in order not to ruin his sacred garments. That would be like asking a surgeon to clean up the operating room to get ready before the next patient comes in for surgery!

There really is nothing wrong or humiliating about having those held in the highest esteem be responsible for this seemingly menial task, which according to medieval Spanish scholar Rabbeinu Bahya, was actually a part of the sacrifice proceedings. We know that there was great pomp and pageantry with the Mishkan sacrificial proceedings and the Kohanim (Priests) were the stars of the show, dressed to the nines, so to speak. Yet they are the same people instructed by God to take out the trash. Daily.

Perhaps everyone needs a daily dose of humility if only to remind us that we are no more important than any other member of our community. As Rabbeinu Bahya notes:  “The smallest act from a place of humility is greater than the largest act from a place of arrogance.”

Many years ago, I was a cantorial soloist at a young synagogue that had transformed a suite in an office park into a working synagogue.  One day I came into what was considered the sanctuary and I watched a woman painting something beautiful above the Ark. It was some kind of Tree of Life. As I watched her lovingly paint each leaf onto the tree, I thought of how it seemed unfair that I as soloist would receive kudos and praise for my voice while this lady, who was bringing such beauty into our environment, would receive very little. It didn’t seem fair. Her part in bringing joy and beauty to our community with her graceful talent was every bit as important as my vocal offering. I hope she felt as much happiness in her work as I felt (and continue to feel) in mine.

And the same is true for the people who work behind the scenes to keep our new community functioning. Those who bring food to share, give people rides to our services, help set up our room for services, greet people as they arrive, distribute flyers and help promote our events, offer their home for a holiday celebration, meet to share ideas on service projects are each working in some small way to help build and sustain our growing congregation.  Every small action contributes to creating a vibrant and — I hope — meaningful community. Because as Jews, we need community, and we need each other. Every act counts. Every task matters.

The Torah portion teaches us that the priests were responsible to keep the fires burning constantly as a sign of the commitment of the Israelites to God. Today, we have the opportunity to show our commitment to God – and to our community -- one task and one mitzvah at a time.

So, while I will continue to be the face and leader of our fledgling and growing congregation, I’ll also continue to sweep up the floor or take out the trash when it’s needed. And I’ll be happy and proud to do so.

Living Openly as a Jew

Dear Friends,

The inaugural Kabbalat Shabbat service of the San Diego Outreach Synagogue took place on Friday, October 26, 2018.

How could we know that just a few hours later, we would awaken to the news that eleven of our Jewish brothers and sisters would be struck down by an evil madman? That hatred so deep would claim the lives of eleven innocent souls? We are only beginning to cope with the grief we feel for the families in Pittsburgh and for the entire Tree of Life community as they mourn their unimaginable loss.

But what is next? To that end, I want to share a brief story with you:

In the fall of 1982, I was a 21-year-old college student traveling through Europe. While in Paris, in addition to seeing the iconic landmarks (Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum etc.), I was eager to walk through what was known as the “Jewish Quarter.” It was my understanding that many Jews lived in this part of town, and having lived most of the previous year in Israel, I was especially eager to connect with them. Yet while walking through the neighborhood, I noticed that my companion and I were among the very few people walking the streets. I was confused. Was I in the right place? Where were all the people? Where were the Jews?

Two years earlier, a bomb had exploded in front of a synagogue as worshippers began arriving in celebration of the start of Shabbat, killing four and wounding forty-six innocent people. In the aftermath, two hundred thousand people marched in solidarity and protest. Just a few months before I arrived in Paris, the violence against the Jews continued as gunmen murdered six people in a kosher restaurant. Now, instead of enjoying the beautiful sunny day, the Jews in that community were nowhere to be seen.

Then suddenly I was filled with a profound sadness as I realized: They were afraid and they were in hiding. They were afraid to live an openly Jewish life. With all that they had experienced, who could blame them?

In the wake of the horrific act of violence and display of virulent anti-Semitism that happened on October 27, 2018 at the Tree of Life Congregation, we stand in solidarity with our fellow Jews in Pittsburgh. We mourn. We cry. We attend vigils. We march. We express our outrage. We encourage each other to get out and vote because the importance of this election cannot be overstated.

But when the initial shock has worn off, will we ask ourselves: Is it safe for me to go to synagogue services? Or a Jewish community celebration in a park? Or to the Jewish Community Center?

Is it safe for me to live openly as a Jew?

I, for one, will not be silenced.

I will not live in fear. I will not be bullied into hiding who I am and my Jewish faith. I will continue to live an open and ethical Jewish life in accordance with the Jewish values on which our lives are based: On Torah. On worship and service. On acts of loving-kindness. (from “Pirkei Avot”)

Many of you may already members of various synagogues. I implore you to continue to attend the religious services and classes and functions at your places of worship. I encourage you to attend the many wonderful Jewish celebrations and community events that occur throughout our city each year.

For those of who will continue to attend the monthly services of the San Diego Outreach Synagogue, I want to assure you that security measures will be in place.

Wherever you are, I encourage you to continue living an openly Jewish life with pride.

If you feel the need to speak to a member of the clergy, please know that I am here for you. Please reach out to me, and I will be glad to support you in any way that I can.

Blessings,

Cantor Cheri Weiss