Thank you for inviting me into your homes this evening. The last time I preached from this pulpit [at Temple Emanu-El] was a quarter century ago. We are blessed. Though physically separated, we are socially connected in this moment – members of two distinct synagogues – and yet we gather – so to speak – to recommit our lives and our very souls to each other and to the blessings we will receive and bestow upon others in this New Year.
The month leading up to this evening and including this evening is supposed to be a time of meditation and reflection, but the rush of events in our world has given us so little opportunity to look deeply into our soul’s needs.
From such events we heard words such as these:
“A situation unprecedented in the history of our State [and our country] presents itself to you [this evening]. By the order of civil authorities, and by the advice [of our local physicians] and of your religious leaders, you will not assemble [for the holiest of the Jewish holy days] …. You are for the first time deprived of the opportunity [to gather as a holy community before your God.]” 
“The vigorous efforts made by the health authorities of our city to stamp out the epidemic is, in one form or another, working hardship and discomfort to every single citizen, and this hardship and discomfort is cheerfully endured for the universal good.”
Who said these words? It wasn’t me. It wasn’t one of your local or state officials.
These words, which I paraphrased a bit for your benefit, are those of the Reverend James E. Coyle, pastor of St. Paul’s Church, as they appeared in the Birmingham News newspaper on Sunday, October 20, 1918. The influenza pandemic – the Spanish Flu – started as WWI was ending. Tens of millions died because they had no immunity from previous strains of influenza. And, my friends, do not be mistaken, we are repeating the same mistakes they made 100 years ago. Protests against wearing facemasks. Refusals to physically distance. Cities opening too soon and closing down again. A letter to the same paper by a school missionary and bible teacher said, in part:
“…five doctors were down with this disease. The persons whom we are depending on to cure us and prevent its spread seem to be falling themselves. As this is true, as a Bible teacher I would like to ask the following questions: Don’t you think in time of sickness and distress is the time for us to manifest our faith in God? Don’t you think in such times as these instead of closing the churches it would be well to open them daily that the people might at their convenient hours assemble therein and pray to God, the great Physician, to help the doctors to remove this disease?”
And we have heard those words today by many religious leaders in the country.
We arrive at this New Year feeling fragile, isolated, and lonely. We are confronted daily with death, civil unrest, and a society that is at odds with itself. There is a universal truth that one never appreciates one’s blessings until deprived of them due to circumstances. Adversities of suffering, loss, and death are universal and inevitable, and they appear more pronounced to us now than ever before.
So, here we are again, 100 years later. It seems that we have forgotten the lessons taught a century ago. The pain of the pandemic is real. Many of us are not working, and those who do work are functioning from home or in some limited capacity. There are worries about finances and not being able to see and embrace family and friends, and when will this end, and worst of all, “Am I getting sick? Was I too close to that guy? Why doesn’t she wear a mask? Will she breathe on me?”
We are part of history in this instant. History books will be written describing what happened here. How you respond is a question future generations will study. We survived 1918. We will survive this. This is a lesson of impermanence. Experiences and moments arise, we can embrace or fear them, and then, seemingly in a moment, they pass us by. The difficult and painful ones drag us into the depths of darkness.
My friends, the lesson is that we all have faced both the Good and the Bad. Recall that we have given space for the appearance of both in our lives. The Bad has appeared and then as quickly has evaporated from your thoughts. The Good and the Blessed moments also – those have vanished just as swiftly.
A story about King Solomon:
One day Solomon decided to humble Benaiah Ben Yehoyada, his most trusted minister. He said to him, “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me.”
“If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied Benaiah, “I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?”
“It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.” Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility.
Spring passed and then summer, and still Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring. He was about to give up when he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by an aged merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet. “Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?” asked Benaiah.
He watched the grandfather take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile.
“Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “have you found what I sent you after?” All the ministers laughed and Solomon himself smiled. To everyone’s surprise, Benaiah held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!” As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band: gimel, zayin, yud, which began the words “Gam Zeh Ya-avor” — “This too shall pass.” At that moment Solomon realized that all his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power were but fleeting things, for one day he would be nothing but dust.”
My friends, all things and all people pass. Although our lives seem fragile, and while we suffer isolation and loneliness, let us remember: Gam zeh ya-avor, this too will pass.
It is not hard to guess that many of us feel overwhelmed from time to time. Those feelings may lead to anxiety, stress, depression, irritability, worry and withdrawal: It is a place of powerlessness.
The place of power is found within: It is our ability to see what we must accept as our reality, and, rather than seeing an obstacle, we must look at it as a challenge. To be challenged means that you can engage your problem. It can be a place of power for you. The challenges we face today are no different than those faced by previous generations, especially the generation from the era of the Spanish Flu.
Problems and challenges are inevitable. We are better off when we realize that we cannot get away from challenges. And the sooner we realize that challenges lead to transformation and opportunities, the sooner we will realize that working through them is the only way to emerge into the new reality, stronger and more wholesome, able to accept a new paradigm.
Sure, this is unfair. You did nothing to deserve this. Why me? You ask the question, and the answer will arrive in the silence, in the still of the night.
Our Torah portion illustrates this: Abraham’s challenge from God was to take his son to be sacrificed. In this portion, with which we begin every New Year, Abraham had a good life, much wealth, and a large family until circumstances changed and God challenged him to act. Was Abraham resistant to this new circumstance? The text does not seem to indicate this. Was it unfair what God was asking of him? It certainly was unfair. Did Abraham become worried, anxious, and depressed? We do not know. What we do know is that he responded and acted. For his faith and his actions, he is a revered figure in Jewish folklore.
To resist and attempt to ignore leads nowhere. We must accept what we have, respond positively to circumstances – perhaps even be creative about it – and take actions which will make a positive difference. Then and only then can there be change.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin
These moments force us to be honest with ourselves. We need to be able to say, “I do not know why or how this challenge was created, but at this moment I am willing to accept the responsibility for it, and wriggle myself out.”
Friends, I understand that many of us right now feel we are running on empty. I must admit that I have felt that way too. It is from that very emptiness that we will survive and thrive. One of my colleagues noted this too in a recent sermon where she derived this lesson from the Tao Te Ching:
- It takes thirty spokes to make a wheel: But the hole in the center makes it useful for a cart.
- It takes a lump of clay to make a pot: But the empty space within it gives the pot its value.
- A house needs walls and doors and windows: But the empty space is what we call a room to live in.
- Thus, fullness has its role, but emptiness redeems it.
We are at “empty”. We can either be “full of” optimism, and passively believe that things will be better or, we can begin anew emptying ourselves of illusion and finding hope. Hope is the faith that by our efforts, we can make things better. The actions we take may be different than we have ever taken before: to survive these circumstances and to thrive, we must think creatively and differently.
- A wheel is functional with emptiness and spokes.
- A pot is useful with emptiness and clay.
- A house is a home with emptiness and walls, doors and windows.
The emptiness with which we begin this New Year will give form and quality to ourselves, our families, our communities and our world.
Rosh Hashanah means New Year. It also means the “beginning of change”. May this moment, as you step into your New Year, be the beginning of a change for the better. L’shanah tovah tikateivu u-m’tukah – May you be blessed with a sweet new year, and may you be the vehicle to bring those blessings to others.
 Bracketed phrases were added by me.
 #11 The Nature of Usefulness.