September 30, 2019 - Rosh Hashana Sermon
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.