A look back at
High Holy Days 5783/2022
Yom Kippur Morning 5783
Rabbi Michael Zedek
Some will be aware that my sermons thus far have included references which I shared in a variety of settings in years past. So in a moment, I intend a story, new at least to me, one that sets the theme for the reflections to follow.
However, you may recall the joking description of how a student of Talmud touches his right ear… And that indirection provides a brief and happy detour. As it happens, the man so many of us loved and miss, Rabbi Herman Schaalman, shared a tale about a Rabbi with an unusual and musical name in one of his last sermons from this pulpit.
Those present will remember how in moving and pained tones, he shared a story about Rabbi Zusya. His students are gathered around his bed as death approached for their teacher. They sense their saintly beloved Zusya is troubled, so they inquire as to the cause of his distress. To foreshorten the tale, he explains, “When I stand before God in judgment, the heavenly court will not ask, ’Zusya, why weren’t you more like Moses?’ No, but when they ask me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Zusya?’ How shall I defend myself?”
A wonderful story and certainly one with grave and great resonance on this day of introspection. But here is another, and for me at least, an unfamiliar and moving story about Rabbi Zusya.
A student goes to his Rabbi and explains that he has great difficulty with the Talmud’s instruction that “A person… bless the Creator for the bad, just as he blesses God for the good. How can a person reach such a level of acceptance?”
The Rabbi instructs the student to seek out Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol and ask him the question.
So he travels to a small village. What we called a shtetl in what would be in today’s embattled Ukraine. When the student arrived, he found the Rabbi lived in a dilapidated shanty that looked barely habitable. He knocked on the door that was hanging just by one hinge. A voice said to come in. As he entered, he saw broken furnishings, torn curtains, a kitchen cabinet open with hardly any food and in the dark shadows, a man with many bandages lying in bed. “Are you Rabbi Zusya,” he asked? “Yes,” came a warm and gentle voice. How can I help you?”
My Rabbi sent me to ask you a question that greatly troubles me. “How can a person bless the Creator for the bad the same way he blesses God for the good?”
“Are you sure you’re Rabbi said to visit me? I don’t know why he sent you. Nothing bad ever happened to me.”
It’s a stunning and, perhaps, instructive tale, and it speaks to an issue that has
long engaged my attention. To be specific, my experience suggests there are
people whose default response is invariably to complain about any, just about
everything. They encounter what we might judge objectively as a metaphorical
hangnail, and their whole world seemingly falls apart. Their woeful cry begins
and ends with “Why me?” Or as a student with whom I discussed this topic
offered somewhat in jest, “If I didn’t complain, I’d have nothing to talk about.”
Yet there are others in my, in our experience who endure a seemingly endless
barrage of challenge, disappointment, debility, illness and pain, and they insist
the journey is still and always worth it. Connecting with others is worth it.
Occasionally, they may give voice to a why me, but the guiding principle is a
louder insistence on a different declaration. Namely, what can I do now? I do not
want this burden, but what may I derive from it. How grow because of it; connect
with others and continue to bless life even despite it.
I’m not suggesting this requires some Pollyanna or Pangloss “put on a happy face”
naïveté. For this is far from Candide’s “best of all possible worlds.” So a Talmudic sage who is chronically ill and chronically devoted to life. Asked, as though his suffering were a test of divine love, he unhesitatingly responds, “I do not want the suffering, and I do not want the reward.” And yet, and yet he continued to teach, continued to care and, most vital, continued to inspire.
Consider another remarkable character found in the Talmud, one named Nahum Gam Zu. A series of disasters fall upon him and after each one he offers, gam zu l’tovah. Often and wistfully translated, this too is for the best. But the Sages are pointing out that is a foolish and a fool’s conclusion. In fact, the Hebrew yields a far more nuanced and meaningful translation. Gam zu l’tovah really means, this too has a good. To expand, I did not want this to happen, but since that cannot be changed, there may be prospect and conviction and learning and blessing even so. Or to recall the moment when Jacob wrestles with a figure in the night, a struggle from which he emerges limping for the rest of his life, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
And that brings to mind a long-ago moment during my service in Kansas City. I received a call from the Pastoral Care Department of a nearby hospital. “We have a patient whom we’d like you to see.” Oh boy, someone needs me, and I rushed to the hospital. Alas, I knew I was in trouble the moment I crossed the threshold of that room. Let me put it this way. A popular phrase offers, “By the time you’re age 50, you have the face you deserve.” Put another way, even if it speaks ill of me, had this person been a book, my best judgment would be not to go beyond the cover. She was, to put it gently, marinated in rage. Angry at the doctors because they weren’t going to get her well quickly enough to suit her demanding schedule. Angry at the nurses because they were giving greater attention to more seriously ill individuals. Angry at God because God seemed to think ice served a valuable purpose, the proximate cause for her hospitalization. And angry at me, I guess, because I walked into the room. If I did anything for that person, it was just another location for her to place some of her rage. But since I was at the hospital already, I decided to visit another patient.
And as some may recall, this woman was paralyzed from the neck down, and she smiled at me. That was 45 years ago, and I hope never to forget that smile, as well the inquiry, where did she get the audacity to continue making a difference in so many lives, in my life? After all, her circumstance was far more grievous than the lady with a broken leg and arm.
That night, as my custom, before trying for sleep, I turned to some reading. On this occasion, the author provided an intriguing suggestion about the difference between fate and destiny. Fate, he argued, is the cards we are dealt. Destiny is how we play the cards we are dealt. While that paralyze lady had a very lousy hand, she was playing the heck out of those cards. So it is 45 later, and I still see and rejoice in the inspiring gift of her smile.
My observation, then, some folks are chronic complainers, and some folks are chronic rejoicers. But that easy dichotomy is too facile, and it does not resolve my inquiry. For how does it happen? How do we end up as persons who grumble and gripe or persons who revel and rejoice?
And for me at least, I can’t pin down a sufficient or satisfactory response. Is it nature or nurture, nature and nurture. There is an element that remains clouded in mystery.
But of this I am sure. If we find ourselves in the complainer column, is that the person we want to be? Is that the memory, the legacy we wish to leave behind? And with that, this sacred season’s message is compelling. And please don’t fall back on the bromide about old dogs. First, it’s a slander against canines, and, far more critically, none of us is done growing yet. So if you see too much of yourself on the complainer side of life, there is still time to change the form and the formula. And, if like the lady who smiled, then please keep shining, smiling, connecting. For in a world of constant turmoil, we shall always need you as model, as inspiration, as a challenge that we too can and must embrace life, all of it and not let it go key im b’rachtani – I may not have wanted this to happen but, like our namesake Jacob who becomes Israel, I will not let it go until it blesses me.
Or to reframe Rabbi Zusya, not that nothing bad has ever happened to me, rather I sought the good, no matter what happened to me. And on that journey, on that path is the key to a life of blessing, blessing and more blessing.
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Book of Remembrance
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This year's Book of Remembrance will be available for congregants to pick-up on Yom Kippur. We are also working on a way to mail the book to those who will not be attending services in person. Thank you.
Tikkun Olam - Repair the World
Emanuel Congregation is working with the following organizations before and during the High Holy Days in an effort to help repair our world:
Care for Real - To help our neighbors in need this winter, we will be collecting items needed by Care for Real to help serve their clients this winter. More information to come.
Shalva - When you donate a used cell phone or iPad, Shalva sends them to a recycling company and then receives money to help fund their much needed services to women healing from abuse. If you have a used cell phone or iPad that you would like to donate to Shalva, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a time drop it off at Emanuel. For more information about Shalva visit shalvaonline.org.
The Ark - Annual Food Drive. The Ark is collecting kosher, non-perishable foods to distribute to its clients for the High Holy Days and beyond. More information about The Ark's Annual High Holy Day Food Drive coming soon.
Machzor (Prayer Books)
Emanuel Congregation uses Mishkan HaNefesh, Machzor for the Days of Awe. Should you wish to purchase your own copy, they may be purchased from the publisher, CCAR Press, or they might also be available at Rosenblum's in Skokie, 773-262-1700.
Emanuel Congregation has some machzorim to loan to those who will be attending services in person. Large print versions are also available.
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