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Fill Our Hands with Blessings — erev Rosh Hashanah

September 29, 2008

One of the words that instantly comes to mind for me when I hear the phrase “the High Holy Days” is “transition.” This is all the truer in the wake of astonishing and unnerving changes on Wall Street as well as the forthcoming Presidential election on November 4th that will welcome a new occupant to the Oval Office. Change is defined by uncertainty and hope. Change has the power to transform us. Some changes are distressing and painful while others are invigorating and creative. The journey is made easier knowing that we are here for each other and knowing that the synagogue is here for us. The place of the synagogue in our lives is a subject that I will talk about tomorrow. Tonight I want to talk about the difference that you and I can make in other peoples’ lives.

In Hebrew the word for ‘transition’ is ma’avar, from the verb “to cross over.” The letters in ma’avar are the same letters in the word iv’ree/”Hebrew,” literally translated as “one who crosses over.” On numerous occasions in the Torah, reference is made to “crossing through the Sea of Reeds” to receive the Ten Commandments and “crossing over the Jordan” to enter the Promised Land. “To cross over” means to arrive at moments that have the potential for transformation. As we stand at the threshold of the New Year, ask yourself this question: “Were there transforming moments this past year that helped define who I am and perhaps changed me for the better?”

This past year, an important transition in my life advanced inexorably across the calendar, though knowing that it would arrive did not make it easier for me to endure. Six weeks ago, on August 16th, Susan and I brought our oldest son, Jonathan, to college. I still remember the day when we walked with him to the corner near our home, put him on the big yellow school bus for the first time, and watched as the bus pulled away from the curb. It felt as if I held my breath the entire day until I finally saw him walk off the bus, beaming with delight, seemingly without a care in the world. The years flew bye – elementary school, middle school, summer camp, sleep-away-camp, high school, out-of-State and out-of-country summer study programs – and I held it together better than I expected through his graduation from high school this past June until his departure for college. I did not realize it at the time, but like a bear storing up fat for the winter, I was collecting a reservoir of tears as August approached. I did not want to rain on his parade, but there were moments that my tears made the world a difficult place for me to navigate.

As he prepared to leave, I came to cherish all the more what we shared: talking about the news, a movie or a book; having him introduce me to some of his favorite music by bands whose names I did not know and cannot remember; and especially those evenings when the two of us watched DVDs that he bought and wanted to share with me. We sat on the couch for two hours or more at a time, exchanging light banter along the way, and those became such incredibly precious times that I am at a loss for words to describe them.

How did we prepare for this transition in our lives? We turned our living room into a storage depot: books; clothes; large plastic containers to transport items from our home to his dorm; ready-to-assemble shelves to go over his bed, and varied odds-and-ends to place on his desk and shelves. We prepared by making sure that he ordered his textbooks, urged him to contact his roommate, and verified that he had funds in his checking account at his on-campus bank. My mantra became, “I know we give our children wings to fly, but my heart has not gotten the message.” Inevitably, with a sweetness I could not have anticipated, other sensations arrived. It was the stirring of something deep within me: tremendous admiration for who he has become – kind, confident, intelligent and involved in the world around him – and the wonder of it all was to simply be in his presence to realize that the timing was now perfect. It was time for him to go. I had to release. The thought that we will have a similar experience about a year from now with our middle son, David, seems a bit less foreboding, though I am sure that the impact of his leaving will bring similar sensations for me.

As the days brought us closer to August 16th, I had a sense of ‘last laps’ and ‘new beginnings.’ I found words in the High Holy Day liturgy to express my hopes: Avinu Malkaynu, mahlay yah-daynu mih’bir’chotecha – “Our Father, our King, fill our hands with blessings” {Gates of Repentance, Rosh Hashanah morning service, p. 122} and I amended it to read, Avinu Malkeynu, mahlay yahdahv mih’bir’chotecha – “Our Father, our King, fill his hands with blessings.” Tears came when I hugged Jonathan farewell on campus, and again as we drove out of Washington, approached Philadelphia and arrived home. They were tears of gratitude for the blessing of parenthood, for the pleasure of watching him grow and flourish, and for having been at his side through the first 19 years of his life. As we left him, we said, “Remember that we are always here for you.”

As a rabbi, I am privileged to be part of some of the most powerful, and sometimes searing moments in peoples’ lives. Experience has taught me that one of the most significant statements you can make is to tell someone you love, “If you need me, I am here for you.” We often think they know it, but they need to hear it because people are reluctant to ask for support. When they need it most, they do not want to intrude – in my beloved Mother’s words, “I do not want to be a burden” – or they believe that asking for help makes them seem weak. Your gift to them is to remind them that you are here for them. Then show them! If you know someone who is in a hospital or a nursing home, visit him. It you know someone who is lonely, visit her. Avinu Malkaynu, mahlay yahdaynu mih’bir’chotecha – “Our Father, our King, fill our hands with blessings.” Sometimes the blessing you bestow is being at the side of someone who is in pain. Pain is not always physical. Sometimes pain is the partner of loneliness, grief or despair.

This past year has been very difficult for members of our congregation, much more so than years past. The sudden onset of catastrophic illness has been startling, and even the anticipation of death cannot shield one from the pain that loss engenders. I often hear people say, “I wish I had ‘done that’ or ‘gone there’.” The worst regret must surely be, “I wish I had told him that I loved him, missed her, appreciated him, and needed her.” I think the only thing worse than regret for not having said it, is not having heard it.

Last week I visited a wonderful woman at a nursing home in Hatboro. I know her, I know her adult children, and I was the rabbi under her grandson’s chuppah when he married. She is 92 years of age and she is sharp, witty and a pleasure to be with, though I would prefer to see her in more pleasant surroundings. Her family was with her when I arrived, just as they were at her side when she was in the hospital. Within the next few weeks she will, God willing, return home and then her family intends to have her move to a health facility much closer to where they live so they can see more of each other.

When I was with her, she spoke about aging and suffering, and her desire not to be a burden to her family. I told her that I did not have answers to some of her questions – “Why do people suffer? Why do people live so long if their last few years are so difficult?” – and instead I asked her to think about how she feels when her children or grandchildren come to visit her, and then her eyes sparkled and a smile spread across her face! What is the clear and consistent message to her? “We are here for you.”

But what happens in your time of need when the people you loved are only precious memories and you can no longer turn to them for advice or support, or those you love live so far away that you do not see each other very often? What happens when you are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers or upon those who seem least likely to help? You need to have faith. The great Hasidic scholar and teacher, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, said that the greatest sin is despair because it means that you have lost faith: you do not believe that there are people and resources that can help.

A few years ago, I was at a social gathering with a Philadelphia congressman and his wife, and they told me this story. They were living in a small town in the Deep South in the early 1980s, not the most hospitable place for African Americans. While driving home very late one night, her car broke down. The streets were deserted. She was in the middle of nowhere, alone and frightened. This was before mobile phones were available to the public, so she could not call for help. After a while, a pick-up truck rolled to a stop behind her car. The driver was a twenty-something white man. A rifle hanging on the rear window was in plain sight. He flagged down a passing car and asked the driver to find a phone to call for a tow truck and the police, and then he waited to ensure that she would have protection in that dark, deserted place, and only when help arrived did he leave. Consider it: a black woman on a dark street in the Deep South, and a white man with a rifle in a pick-up truck. Sometimes you have to have faith.

We are one another’s best hope. You start with the people who are closest to you and you assume the best about almost everyone else. Each one of you knows someone you have been meaning to call, someone who needs to hear your voice, or who needs to see you. Sometimes significant results come from minimal effort. You pick up the phone or the pen. You connect in ways that truly say, “I care about you.” The reason we do so is given voice in a story about a man who visited his wife every day in a nursing home. She suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and did not recognize him. People asked him, “Why do you keep on going there when she does not even know who you are?” He replied, “Because I know who I am.” If you consider yourself to be a mensch – it is a gender neutral word – act like a mensch.

When my father died in 1990 and my mother in 2002, I wore a keriah ribbon on the garment over my heart for a week following their internment. The black ribbon is torn before the funeral commences to symbolize the tearing of the heart. Every morning, I placed the ribbon on my shirt or suit jacket. I wore it to meetings, on errands, in stores and at gas stations. I was astounded by the number of people whom I did not know and who did not know me, but they knew what the ribbon signified, and they came up to me and said, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “My prayers are with you.” I cannot begin to tell you how powerful and healing that was for me. At those times of very difficult transitions in my life, those brief, anonymous connections made a difference.

To be a mensch is to also make the time to rejoice during times of transition. Five years ago, my best friend celebrated his 60th birthday. His wife planned a party for him and invited us to attend, but since they live in Los Angeles, the distance gave us pause. There was one great reason for going and there were many reasons for staying home and just sending a gift: the cost of the trip and time away from family tilted the scale toward toasting him from afar. The scales tipped toward going because I love him. I told Lou’s wife that I would surprise him, and so I flew west, picked up a rental car at the airport, and drove to their home about an hour north of Los Angeles. As I got out of the car, I called him on my mobile phone. As I walked up the path to his house, I asked him how the weather was ‘out there’ and what he was doing that weekend. I rang the doorbell while we were talking, and he opened it, mobile phone to his ear, my voice coming out of it, yet standing in front of him at the same time! The look on his face made the entire trip worthwhile! We hugged, laughed and marveled at the blessing of being together. That is a memory that I will cherish forever.

When I began my sermon this evening, I asked you to consider transforming moments this past year that helped you better define who you are, and perhaps changed you for the better. Who did you touch? Who touched you? What do you want your legacy to be? You can create positive, lasting memories. You can make a wonderful difference in the life of just one person, or perhaps many people. Avinu Malkaynu, mahlay yah’daynu mih’bir’chotecha – “Our Father, our King, fill our hands with blessings.”

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin