Sermon given on Rosh Hashanah Morning 5760, September 11,1999, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
As a young child, Dr. Annette Finger escaped Nazi-occupied France with her parents, climbing over the Pyrenees Mountains into neutral Spain. This long and arduous trek followed several years of anxious hiding. Sadly, though, getting to Spain was not sufficient. Eager to keep the Nazis at bay, Spain would not offer safe haven to Jews. Young Annette’s family had to cross the entire country to reach Portugal, where they would be permitted to sail for America.
Bereft of her friends and much of her family, without any of the comforts of home, Annette began to despair. Somehow, Annette knew that Hanukkah had arrived. She thought back to joyful holidays of the past, nights spent playing dreidel near the blazing menorah, and she wept for all that had been lost. As close as she was to freedom, Annette did not believe that her family would survive, that she would ever again see the lights of Hanukkah.
Annette’s father saw his daughter’s tears, and he asked what was wrong. “Father,” she said, “It’s Hanukkah, and we don’t even have a menorah.”
“Ah, but we do,” he told her. Annette was mystified, because she knew that her family had sold every single valuable item in order to buy forged papers and to bribe guards, to save their lives from the brutal Nazis and French collaborators. Everything was gone, including their silver Shabbat candlesticks and kiddush cup. Even their beautiful Hanukkah menorah had been sold.
Annette’s father led her out of the barn where they had stopped for the night. He asked her to identify the very brightest star, which Annette did. “That star,” he said, “will be our shammas. Now,” he continued, “pick out four stars to right of that bright one, and four more to the left. Now, we have our menorah for Hanukkah.”
That night, through her despair, Annette learned a profound and valuable lesson that has sustained her for more than fifty years, a teaching that has kept our people alive for millennia, through centuries of persecution and destruction. The Babylonians destroyed our Temple and banished us into exile. The Romans forbade the study of Torah, and burned our rabbis at the stake. The Spaniards outlawed Judaism throughout their realm, decreeing conversion, expulsion, or death. In each of these tragic hours, our people’s very existence has been threatened; but in every dark age, our people has looked to the heavens, looked to the Torah, looked to one another and found hope. In times of persecution and duress, we have always believed and affirmed that God is with us. Our pain seems to have fortified our faith and to have revealed our nobility of spirit. Our light, our menorah, has always burned brightly through the black of night.
But what about the good times? The truth, thankfully, is that most of us know much more joy than sorrow, many more days of good health than illness, much greater success than disappointment. Our Jewish people, too, has known ages of spiritual growth, unfettered freedom, and glorious triumph. We are privileged to live in an age of unparalleled prosperity, here in America and throughout the world.
Like little Annette’s father, we have survived the bad times with hope and faith. But how do we cope with success?
In today’s Torah portion, we read the story of our matriarch Sarah, who miraculously gives birth to Isaac at the age of 90. Throughout all the decades of infertility, Abraham and Sarah have served God with loyalty, reaching out to others with hospitality and loving kindness. Now, though, Sarah has the child for whom she has always prayed, but her faith and her generosity of spirit fail her. She complains that people will laugh at her, because God has given her a son at such an old age. Jealousy and selfishness overake her. On slim pretext, Sarah demands the expulsion of Abraham’s older child, Ishmael, and his mother Hagar, who had been Sarah’s faithful servant for decades.
Sarah is not the only biblical example of faithlessness and selfishness in times of joy. We all know of the Children of Israel, whom God freed from Egyptian bondage. After ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, awesome acts on behalf of the Israelites, these freed slaves almost immediately become self-centered and disloyal to God. They complain about the food. They worship the Golden Calf.
In fact, as we survey Jewish history, we find that our people have drawn together in faithfulness during bad times. The eras of highest assimilation and conversion away from God’s covenant have been ages of prosperity, success and acceptance.
Many of our individual lives are filled with a similar paradox: We turn to God in times of crisis, but focus on ourselves when we are more fortunate. We are ill and ask God for healing; but when we are healthy, we credit our own eating habits and exercise routines. Meeting with financial disaster, we may ask God to restore our fortune. And yet, after a great business success, we offer credit where we imagine it is due: to our own talent, our own hard work, our own determination. Faced with the death of a loved one, we turn to God for comfort and for strength. Welcoming a newborn child, though, we often dedicate ourselves to pursuits that benefit only our own household, refusing to reach out as we focus only on our own.
From our matriarch Sarah to our Israelite ancestors in the desert, to the joys and sorrows of our own lives, we frequently do confront disease, death and disappointment with faith and hope, while we cope with success by turning inward, behaving selfishly, walking away from God and humanity.
No wonder, then, that the Roman Empire fell amidst great riches.
No wonder, then, that wealth does not always make us happy.
No wonder, then, that so many of us feel all alone, spiritually empty, and unfulfilled, just when all our prayers would seem to have been answered.
This year, let us meet each joy with a resolve to share our happiness with others, for our successes are not only due to our own talents and labors, but also to our parents who gave us life, to our teachers who instructed and inspired us, to countless individuals who have helped us along life’s path.
In the year ahead, may God reach into our hearts, implanting gratitude in the place of self-congratulation, that we may praise God as the ultimate Source of every success, the Maker of our positive attributes, the One Who fashions our every joy.
Let us learn from Hannah, the heroine of this morning’s Haftarah. Like our matriarch Sarah, Hannah is childless. Like Sarah, she prays for a child, and is blessed with a son, born according to our tradition on Rosh Hashanah, just like Isaac. Unlike Sarah, though, Hannah is not jealous of her husband’s older children in her hour of joy. She does not credit herself with the triumph of bringing a child into the world. She does not view her son as her possession, and does not cloister him from the world behind walls. Instead, Hannah offers her gratitude to God and presents her son to the service of the Lord. She dedicates her son to a purpose higher than her own temporary happiness or his material wealth. She sanctifies her son for the service of humanity. Her reward is eternal: Samuel leads the Israelite people with honesty and fortitude for several tumultuous decades, and ultimately anoints the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David.
Let us learn, too, from the San Antonio Spurs. Perhaps you know that I am a fan. To the surprise of many, though, even Rabbi Stahl was mesmerized by the NBA Finals. Throughout the season, and during the playoffs, several Spurs players, led by David Robinson and Avery Johnson, frequently reminded us of their deeply-felt Christian faith. Unlike many highly-paid professional athletes, these teammates seem not to be jealous of one another. They view their athletic talents, their work ethic, and their winning spirit as gifts from God. Several utilize these gifts as vehicles to serve God and humanity off the basketball court. Although some in our Jewish community felt alienated by the Spurs players’ public professions of Christian faith, I found them inspirational, even as I understand that their concept of God is very different from ours. In their hour of triumph, David Robinson and his teammates taught us all: Service is the most appropriate response to success. Victory should make us humble. We are not ultimately responsible for our own blessings; God is.
During the last year, we at Temple Beth-El have sustained inestimable losses, as we have laid to rest numerous loved ones and friends, distinguished leaders of our community, even gedolei hador, great leaders of a generation. Often, we hear that the true measure of greatness is how we confront life’s hardships. Let us reflect, though, on the lives of three truly great individuals taken from us during 5759: Winnie Ozer, familial matriarch and volunteer extraordinaire; Jack Kaufman, esteemed Past President of Temple Beth-El; and Philip Barshop, unparalleled leader of our Jewish community. Let us affirm that the measure of their greatness was in how they coped with happiness, with blessings, with success.
Winnie Heubaum Ozer knew the joy of loving family and a plethora of devoted friends. Never jealous of her love, she shared herself, her children, and her grandchildren with an entire community. Ever humble, she did not claim credit for her blessings. Instead, here in this Temple, every Shabbat, Winnie praised God for her good fortune.
Jack Hammer Kaufman was endowed with unmatched leadership skills, a sharp analytic mind, and an enormous capacity for hard work. More than using his capabilities for his own benefit, Jack selflessly offered his wisdom to others. Jack’s life demonstrated an innate awareness that his talents, and even his drive, were gifts from the Lord, intended for the good of all.
Philip Markusfeld Barshop frequently reminded us of his good fortune, to have been born to wonderful parents, to have been blessed with magnificent partners, and to have made some incredible business deals. Phil directed each of his gifts to the service of his community and dedicated an enormous portion of his material success to the good of others. Thus did his actions acknowledge that his prosperity was not primarily of his own making, but was an endowment to all humanity, through him, from God.
Today, as we conclude our worship and leave the Temple, we shall wish one another a shanah tovah. Perhaps in English, we shall say, “Happy New Year,” but that’s an inaccurate translation of shanah tovah. With those words, we wish each other a good year, not specifically a happy one.
A good year is a year of sharing our talents, our work ethic, and our blessings for the good of all humanity.
A good year is a year of expressing our gratitude to God for health, happiness, and many blessings, for God is the One Who sustains us through every sadness, carries us through hours of disappointment, and is the ultimate Source of everything good.
May God bless each of us with a shanah tovah, a good year, a year of doing good, with everlasting faith in the Lord.