Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - 2022/5783 - Life Amidst Chaos

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - 2022/5783

How to Live Amidst Chaos

    This past year has felt like a long roller coaster ride to me, filled with both extreme highs and lows. In addition to continuing to navigate the challenges of yet another year of covid both personally and professionally, there have been a number of family events that have been very trying and others that have been extremely joyous.

    Last September, just a week after Yom Kippur, my mother fell in her apartment in Philly and was hospitalized for a couple of days. When Lenore and I drove up to see my parents a few days after my mother came home from the hospital, they said they were ready to move closer to us. Within the next six weeks Lenore and I were able to secure an apartment in the Ring House in Rockville, hire movers for the furniture and other belongings that would go with them and to remove the rest of their belongings that wouldn’t be coming along. The move entailed finding new doctors here and going to appointments with them as well as many more logistical arrangements. All seemed to be going well with my parents as they settled into their new surroundings until my father began dealing with some heart issues and needed to have a heart valve replaced and a pacemaker put in last May.  I am relieved to have my parents now living close by so that I can see them often and be here to help them.  It is also wonderful to see them each week at Shabbat services and to be able to be together for all the holidays.

    Lenore also had a health scare this past year.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer a few days before Passover and had a lumpectomy at the end of April. This was a very scary time for all of us and we were extremely happy when the doctors said she was cancer free after her radiation treatments ended in June.  We’ve also had other close relatives endure various health crises this year including a family member who is currently dealing with mental health issues. 

    All of these issues have been weighing me down yet at the same time we have also been able to celebrate joyous occasions too. In May, Lenore and I  and our daughters traveled to Israel for my nephew’s wedding. Last month we celebrated our oldest daughter Elisheva’s wedding and are thrilled to welcome our son in law Scott to our family. And any time now Lenore and I will become grandparents for the first time, when our daughter in law Gaby gives birth.

    These extreme highs and lows in my family life also corresponded with crisis and despair around the world. The personal, stressful and traumatic issues that I had to navigate, were compounded by devastating events in the world around us. Mass shootings around our country, attacks on democracy and democratic institutions, limits on personal freedom and specifically a woman’s right to choose, climate change crises around the globe, the rise of antisemtic attacks, and the rising tide of refugees escaping multiple war zones are just some of the issues that we continue to confront every single day. These issues alone are enough to stop us in our tracks and cause us to hide under the covers until someone tells us it’s safe to come out. But all these issues coupled with personal crises make life even more difficult to live and endure. 

    So, in my effort to come to terms with this onslaught of personal emotions I want to share with you today a lesson I learned in the hopes that it can help us ride this roller coaster of life safely.

    Last May, the Washington Board of Rabbis met in person for the first time since before the pandemic. Our meeting was a study session with the director of the local branch of Hadar (a pluralistic educational institution that makes Jewish text study accessible). Rabbi Avi Straussberg presented texts that shed a new light on the story of Noah and the Flood from the book of Genesis. 

    The midrash Rabbi Avi chose to teach was a new one from Tamar Biala in a book titled Dirshuni. Midrash means interpretation and it’s the term applied to any form of interpretation of biblical text. Over the centuries rabbis have interpreted the Torah in order to derive stories - like Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s idol shop - or to derive law - like why we light Shabbat candles every week. The text of the Torah has always been seen by the rabbis as the basis for further study and exploration. The Torah is meant to be intensely studied because it is understood to contain layer upon layer of religious and spiritual meaning and teaching. 

    Though throughout Jewish history midrash was left to the realm of the rabbis, in the past few decades others - academic scholars, poets and authors - have published meaningful and thoughtful midrash as well. Such is the case with this collection of midrashim written in Hebrew by several women in Israel and translated beautifully into English. In this midrash that Rabbi Avi shared titled The Raven and the Dove, Tamar Biala derives a provocative lesson. 

    As all midrash does, Tamar Biala begins from something missing in the text in the Torah. In the story of Noah in Genesis, we may recall that when the Ark finally came to rest on Mt. Ararat, and the waters had finally begun to recede, Noah sent out a raven to see if it was safe for everyone to leave the Ark. He sent the raven and then he sent the dove. The dove came back and after seven days Noah sent the dove again. This time it came back with an olive branch in its beak. After seven days he sent the dove again and it did not return. The question for Tamar Biala is what happened to the raven and the dove? Why doesn’t the Torah say that the raven and dove returned to the Ark? Because the text is mysterious, it provides an opening for Tamar Biala to create a story that can teach us a valuable moral and spiritual lesson.

       Biala imagines all the birds gathered together in their house of study wondering what happened to the raven and dove. They decide to send the eagle - the highest flying bird and the one with excellent vision - to search for them. Here is what she wrote: “The eagle flew away, for a day, and another, and then returned with the dove, and her entire family—since from the moment she found a home, up until that very day, [the dove] had been birthing, and caretaking, breeding a multitude of sons and daughters, but he [the eagle] did not return with the raven. The [birds] asked him: ‘That raven, couldn't you find him?’ He said: ‘I found him flying here and there at the ends of the earth and he refused to come with me. He said ‘Ever since the day that Noah sent me out, I haven't stood or rested, and if I didn't return to him, how can I return with you?’”

    At this point in the midrash the stage has been set. What have the raven and dove been doing since leaving the Ark? One - the dove - has found a mate and has started a family. The other - the raven - has kept flying around refusing to do anything until called back by Noah. 

    Why have I shared the beginning of this midrash with you? Because as Rabbi Straussberg pointed out to us, this interpretation is a commentary on responding to crisis, devastation and chaos. The Flood was a cataclysmic event. It wiped out all of creation except for those creatures in the Ark. As the flood waters rose, Noah and his family heard the cries of all of creation and witnessed the annihilation of the world as they knew it. When the rain stopped and the waters receded enough that the Ark could come to rest on a mountain, Noah began to hope. Sending out the birds, Noah hoped to learn that all was not lost; perhaps life could begin again. 

    But the birds, who in this midrash take on human characteristics, responded in two ways to the devastation, a devastation that was both personal and global. One - the dove - followed its natural instincts and did what it knew how to do. It kept on living by finding a mate and raising a family. No matter what the world looked like, and no matter that they were the only doves on earth, and no matter that they had lost everything to the Flood, the doves went about their natural routine.

    The raven, on the other hand, was overwhelmed by both the personal and global destruction. It couldn’t find a mate, it was unable to resume its natural functions. Death and despair was all pervasive and the raven felt no other choice than to keep flying.

    This midrash isn’t meant to be understood as just a response to the Flood. It is meant to be applied to our own life. What makes the Torah and the midrash on the Torah so meaningful is that the underlying messages and lessons are eternal. So the Flood represents the chaotic time in which we are now living and the raven and dove represent two possible responses to that chaos. Who do we identify with more - the raven or the dove? As we go about our lives do we feel as if we are flying around like the raven not knowing if it’s safe to land? Or do we somehow manage to go on with our lives as the dove trying to bring life and joy to the world around us? 

    To further emphasize this dilemma, Dr. Mary Pipher - a clinical psychologist and author - wrote this recently in a guest essay in the NY Times. “Some days, the news is such that I need all my inner strength to avoid exhaustion, anxiety and depression. I rarely discuss this despair. My friends don’t, either. We all feel the same. We don’t know what to say that is positive. So we keep our conversations to our gardens, our families, books and movies and our work on local projects. We don’t want to make one another feel hopeless and helpless. Many of us feel we are walking through sludge. This strange inertia comes from the continuing pandemic, a world at war and the mass shootings of shoppers, worshipers and schoolchildren. In addition, our country and our planet are rapidly changing in ways that are profoundly disturbing. We live in a time of groundlessness when we can reasonably predict no further than dinnertime. The pandemic was a crash course in that lesson. As we are pummeled with daily traumatic information, more and more of us shut down emotionally. I can hear the flatness in the newscasters’ voices, see the stress in my friends’ faces and sense it in the tension of the workers at my sister’s nursing home. We are not apathetic; we are overwhelmed. Our symptoms resemble those of combat fatigue.”

    So the question our midrash is asking and Dr. Pipher is articulating is are we supposed to be the raven or are we supposed to be the dove? Are we supposed to live our lives like the raven, feeling overwhelmed by the chaos around us? Are we supposed to live feeling as if there is nothing to do, saying how could we possibly do anything positive in the face of this despair? 

    Or are we supposed to be the dove - somehow able to ignore the devastation and continue to build a life with family? Are we supposed to avoid the obvious calamities around us and commit to doing what we do best - our daily routines, supporting our families, giving back to the community? 

    Is it an either/or choice between living like the raven or like the dove? The midrash provides an answer. Biala continues her midrash this way. The eagle was able to bring the raven and the dove to the birds and the birds were impressed by the dove’s ability to find blessing amidst the despair. But the raven responded and said, “Even if the waters have left firm ground upon the earth, I cannot dwell on it, for it says [in the Torah] ‘the face of the soil was ִharev, destroyed’, and a place that has no face, [neither] its tears cannot be wiped away, [n]or its disgrace.” The midrash continues, “At that moment, the sun began to set and the sky seemed to them as red as blood. The [birds] looked at the dove, and saw that she was tired and weeping; they looked at the raven and saw that he was losing his mind. They looked to the Shekhinah [who took the form of a stork] and saw that she was spreading her wings, and they were large, and a warming wind arose from them. The Shekhinah arose from her place and went over to the dove and the raven and sheltered them with her wings. The raven ceased his flight. The dove's soul was rested.”

    The answer for the midrash is finding refuge in God’s sheltering presence. At times we languish from the overwhelming despair in the world around us. We feel as if we are flying around like the raven, unable to rest, unable to do anything but mourn and grieve the calamities in our lives. Coping with tragedy is painful and tiring and we need a place to rest our wings and find comfort and strength.

    But somehow many of us, despite what we are coping with, manage to be like the dove sometimes. We can find the strength to celebrate a wedding or anticipate a grandchild’s birth. We may even be able to dedicate ourselves to tikun olam - to social justice - and do our part, even in the simplest way by bringing food or toiletries to shul to be donated, to make the world a better place. We can be like the dove and know that we have no choice but to follow our instinct and do what we know how to do - to seek meaning as we live our lives.

    As Dr. Pipher said, we waver from raven to dove every day. And as the midrash says, we can only hope that we feel safe under God’s wings in the knowledge that we are doing what is right and good. We are comforted knowing that there is blessing out there, that there can be a pause to the suffering in the world. We don’t know when the suffering will end, but a belief in the eternal values that God represents provides us with the strength we need to live each day. Eternal religious values, the moral and ethical principles of our Jewish tradition, provide the hope and the inspiration that we so desperately seek. Celebrating a family milestone event says that we believe in our right to joy; we believe that we deserve blessing; we believe that this blessed event can bring about more and more blessed and joyous events.

    Amanda Gorman, the fabulous young poet, said it this way in her poem Hymn for the Hurting. “Everything hurts, Our hearts shadowed and strange, Minds made muddied and mute. We carry tragedy, terrifying and true. And yet none of it is new; We knew it as home, As horror, As heritage. Even our children Cannot be children, Cannot be.

    “Everything hurts. It’s a hard time to be alive, And even harder to stay that way. We’re burdened to live out these days, While at the same time, blessed to outlive them.

    “This alarm is how we know We must be altered — That we must differ or die, That we must triumph or try. Thus while hate cannot be terminated, It can be transformed Into a love that lets us live.

    “May we not just grieve, but give: May we not just ache, but act; May our signed right to bear arms Never blind our sight from shared harm; May we choose our children over chaos. May another innocent never be lost. Maybe everything hurts, Our hearts shadowed & strange. 

       But only when everything hurts May everything change.”

    May our prayers reach God this High Holiday season and may we witness change. May we make wise choices; may we overcome despair; may we bring order out of chaos. May 5783 be a year of blessing and joy. Amen.