This year, as I began to think about my High Holy Day Sermons, I knew it would be important to acknowledge the elephant in the room. On Rosh Hashanah, I addressed this at the beginning of my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon. Rather than dwell on it, let me just name it and then move on. All of us that are involved with putting together these services and experiences for our community are saddened we are not together in person. We look forward to seeing all of you back at Temple Beth El next year in person.
We have dealt with loss in a variety of ways this past year and a half. On Rosh Hashanah, I preached about being in a “pseudo coma” and the grief we all faced. This evening, on Erev Yom Kippur, I am going to address loss through a different lens – the lens of acceptance and change. When we only view loss or grief in one way, we may miss out on the opportunities present for us to grow…to look at our lives through a different perspective and to learn from the loss, rather than dwell on the negative.
This summer, I was blessed to spend 2nd session at the Reform Movement’s southeast camp, URJ Camp Coleman in Cleveland, Georgia. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing havoc across the world, Camp Coleman (and the rest of the URJ camps) requested for faculty members to remain at camp for as long as possible. Temple Beth El is a congregation made up of all kinds of members – from the young to the most experienced in years. With 11 campers heading to Camp Coleman this summer, it was valuable for me to join them and serve as faculty for the entire 2nd session.
While at Coleman, I was able to spend some quality time with a wonderful singer/song writer/song leader/educator named Charlie Kramer, a disability and inclusion advocate and coach, and an incredibly talented musician. He shared a program with us, “Singing in the Dark,” a musical and spoken word experience. This experience challenged all of us to enter into a space blindfolded, focusing our attention on the sounds around us, and more specifically on the beautiful music we made together. Charlie himself is blind (a word he uses to describe himself); he was diagnosed at 5 years old, becoming legally blind at 15…it took him until he was 24 before he truly embraced his vision, even while being legally blind.
While experiencing, even temporarily, a moment of vision loss, I was able to listen…truly listen. I was listening to my heartbeat, to my breath, to the many sounds around me…even the shuffling of leaves in the trees. This program lasted less than an hour – and yet, during that time, I was able to think about what the word loss means. Yes, it means being without something…but it also affords each of us the opportunity to focus on what we have, truly recognizing the wondrous miracles we are blessed with every day, every moment.
At one point, he began to sing “We Will Rise,” a song he wrote in the aftermath of the 2018 Woolsey Fire that destroyed his home camp, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps in Malibu, California. His words challenged us to find the inner strength we need to recover from tragedy and pain. This is not a song about desperation – it is a song that pushes us to climb up from despair, from the depths of pain. When we found out in the Spring of 2020 that Camp Coleman would not be opening for the summer, as so many other camps in the USA, we were faced with tremendous pain. Being at Camp Coleman this summer showed us that we are able to rise from our pain. We are able to get back up and push forward. Charlie reminded us of this resilience. Resilience – a word we will return to in a few minutes…
In the liturgy of our Shacharit (morning) service, we find a sequence of blessings called Nisim B’Chol Yom, “The Daily Miracles.” Each of these blessings begin the same way: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, “Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe.” What follows this introductory phrase is one miracle, one way in which we acknowledge God as the source of all blessings. If we focus on the 2nd blessing, we find:
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam; Pokeach Ivrim.
Looking at 3 different prayer books, we find 3 different translations of Pokeach Ivrim. In the gender neutral “Gates of Prayer,” often referred to as the “Gates of Gray,” we find “who helps the blind to see.” In our current siddur, Mishkan Tefillah, we find “who opens the eyes of the blind.” In our High Holy Day Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, we find “Your great power opens eyes that cannot see.”
One of the most important lessons Charlie reinforced while at camp this summer is that words do matter. As we translate the Hebrew into English, we find multiple meanings for the same Hebrew phrase. The way we translate Pokeach Ivrim matters a great deal. Charlie does not see his blindness as a disability. Rather, he recognizes the gift he has. He is truly able to see. Let me explain by turning to one of my new favorite songs, “Blind,” by Charlie Kramer.
Link to "Blind" here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qg6lu7uQQQo&list=LL
In the two choruses of “Blind,” Charlie has said and taught so much about his experience. In the first chorus, Charlie expresses the feelings of someone who is physically blind, physically unable to see. The words “I am blind” are sung 3 times – each time as an introduction of one aspect of life that is missed by only looking at the surface meaning of “blind.” I am blind: to the life that’s right beside me; to the light that shines before me; to the shadows all around me; to the absence of the blessings that are right before my eyes.
The p’shat, or simple meaning of this chorus is that we are blind to what is right in front of us. If we look deeper, though, we see that what Charlie is teaching us is that by dwelling on the “negative” understanding of being blind, we are missing out on what we are actually able to see. When we devote all of our attention to what we do not have, or what we think we do not have, we miss out on the blessings that are there – and perhaps a greater understanding of what we think we are missing out on.
In the second chorus, we find the same 3 “I am blind” intro lines; however, what follows each of these lines is an affirmation of what we are actually able to see. “And I can see what’s right before me; And I can hear the world around me; And I can feel the strength inside me; The beauty in our world, Sings beyond our eyes.” Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of physical blindness, there is a recognition of so much more. The opportunities present in our lives are so much more than we could have possibly even imagined. And that is the point – when we focus on what is “wrong” or “bad,” we oftentimes miss out on the opportunities for growth.
As I mentioned earlier, Charlie also teaches us about Resilience. It is our ability to get up, dust ourselves off and get moving that defines not only who we are, but also the potential of where we are going. During this past year and a half, we have been pushed around in ways none of us could have imagined. And, yet, here we are, at the end of the Yamim Noraim, the 10 Days of Awe…standing here in front of God – vulnerable and full of dread. We may not know what is coming next, but we are prepared to do so as a community.
On the wall in my office, I have a quote from one of my favorite movie characters, Rocky Balboa:
“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.
It’s a very mean and nasty place.
And I don’t care how tough you are.
It will beat you to your knees.
And keep you there permanently if you let it.
You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.
But it ain’t about how hard you hit.
It’s about how hard you can get hit.
And keep moving forward.
How much you can take and keep moving forward.
That’s how winning is done.”
I look at these words every day when I walk into my office. In a way, these words have become a mantra for me. After all, when life hits us hard, it is our responsibility to get back up and move forward. And we can all agree the past year and half hit us hard, time and time again. We are still fighting, looking for those opportunities for strength and growth.
Yom Kippur affords us the break we need to examine and then reexamine ourselves. We do so to prepare for the next year – to challenge ourselves to be better, to do better. We do not dwell on how we have wronged or been wronged. Rather, we look for those unique chances to grow and do more. Tomorrow evening, as the Days of Awe are ending and we are standing in front of the “Open Gates,” we will read “As the Day Ends,” which begins with the following paragraph:
We stand as one before the gates of a new year--
Renewed by this Day of Atonement,
Made stronger by all who are with us
And by those whose presence we feel within…
This is the truest example of our resilience. We will be exhausted and hungry. And, yet we will stand together, strengthened by those who are with us – whether physically, emotionally or in any other way. That presence – of those who have struggled with us, not only in the past year, but also during the Yamim Noraim – will enable us to stand tall. We will look toward the Gates of Righteousness, the Gates of the New Year and ask God to allow us to enter with love and true devotion to a better year; a year filled with opportunities taken and challenges accepted.
On behalf of the entire Boxt family, all 5 of us, I wish for every one of us in this congregation and for anyone who is able: an easy fast. May we all be written in the Book of Life and may each of us have a wonderful 5782. Good Yontif!oHowHowe
I am a husband, father and rabbi - just trying to help to make the world a better place!