Sermon given on Rosh Hashanah 5759, September 21, 1998, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
My grandmother is fond of telling the story of the day that her first grandchild was born. “It’s a boy,” they exclaimed, as they handed her an awful looking baby with a grossly elongated forehead and a pointed head. To this day, she thanks God that my head isn’t pointed. In my grandmother’s eyes, though, I’m still that baby. I even continue to call her what I’ve always called her, even if it is a little embarrassing for a 35 year old to call anybody “Yaya.”
Thank God, Yaya remained reasonably vigorous to the age of 89. As her 90th birthday approached, a gala celebration was planned. Just weeks before the birthday, though, things began to change. Yaya was considerably less energetic, and sometimes even confused. Little improvement was evident as the big day drew near.
The arrangements were beautiful, but Yaya, previously the life of every party, was almost peripheral at her own birthday. She was seated in a chair the entire time, an attendant on one side, a family member on the other, as each guest spoke to her only briefly. To me, Yaya’s 90th birthday seemed like a tremendous disappointment.
Yaya was undaunted, though, when I spoke to her a few days later. All she could talk about was the huge number of compliments she had received, extolling the magnificence of her party. Certainly, Yaya was disappointed that she had not been up to celebrating in her usual fashion. Yet, she refused to be overcome by that letdown. The disappointment was real, but it was not the final word. Yaya has not forgotten that she was unwell on her 90th birthday, but more than a year later, she remembers the party as a tremendous success.
Throughout our lives, each of us experiences disappointments, big and small. Rain has spoiled the dreams of countless outdoor weddings. How many among us have been forced to cancel an eagerly anticipated vacation because of illness? Even in a robust economy, millions of Americans have been squeezed out of once-promising careers. Technological progress and the demands of corporate efficiency have terminated their jobs, often through no fault of their own.
Painfully, our High Holy Day liturgy reminds us that our lives are not in our control. We read this morning: God decides “who shall live and who shall die.” We do not. God decrees “who shall be rich and who, poor.” We do not. God ordains “who shall be exalted and who, humbled.” We do not.
In our modern age, we increasingly believe that we can command our own fate. In the quest for longevity, we have quit smoking, taken up exercise, and become obsessive about our diets. At least I have. We work harder, confident that we shall get ahead. We plan for the future, attempting to assure comfort and security in old age.
These efforts are commendable, and even necessary. What would be the point of free will, if we were utterly powerless? What would be the purpose of these High Holy Days, if we could not improve? What would be the meaning of human life, if we could not make a difference on God’s Earth?
At the same time, though, if we overestimate our power, if we are too confident in our abilities, if we rely too heavily on our plans, we are bound to meet with frustration. Even as these High Holy Days urge us to do better and be better, they imbue us with a deep sense of humility. God ultimately decrees our fate. We can only “temper judgment’s severe decree.” Our doctors are right: we should lose weight and get into shape; we will have a better chance of living longer. Our parents are correct: we should persevere at our studies; we will be more likely to succeed. Our financial advisors have a point: we should save for the future; we will improve our odds for a secure retirement. But the prayer book is also on target: we should develop our faith, for life will inevitably present us with unplanned difficulties. Because we are humans and God is God, we are not ultimately in control. We will be disappointed. Only faith can turn our disappointment into hope.
This point was dramatically driven home in a movie that at least one or two of you might have seen: Titanic. Millions of Americans were captivated by the story of a ship, built to be so great and so strong as to be positively unsinkable. Human hubris imagined that no act of God, and certainly no iceberg, could destroy this mightiest of man-made machines. And yet, the unsinkable sank. Yes, there was human error. We know why the tragedy occurred, so the Titanic disaster is no unexplainable act of God. However, no navigational miscalculation was as great as the shipbuilders’ excessive reliance on their own work, their own planning. They were brilliant. They spared no expense. They worked tirelessly. All to no avail in the end. They demonstrated a lesson, so hard for human beings to accept, even though our lives teach us constantly and our High Holy Day liturgy reminds us annually: We are not in charge.
The movie tells the story of a fictional character, Rose, whom we meet as an elderly lady, remembering the events of that fateful voyage. We come to know the young Rose even better. A first class passenger on that great ship, Rose is smitten with Jack, a young man traveling in steerage. They meet and fall in love in a matter of days. Then, on that terrible night, she lives and he dies. Decades later, Rose remembers Jack as the greatest love of her life. The plans that they made together during those days on Titanic were the dreams of her lifetime. The word “disappointment” surely trivializes Rose’s sense of loss.
And yet, in the elderly Rose, we see a woman who has lived a good and meaningful life, even in the shadow of her devastating bereavement. She is accompanied by a granddaughter, and we can see that Rose’s life has been full and rich. Her faith in life, which allows her to dream with Jack, leading to devastating disappointment, also permits her to live on with hope. Titanic — the movie, at least — is inspiring in the end. Rose clings strongly to her faith in life, and so do we.
In a sermon he gave last spring, at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Rabbi Samuel Karff spoke of a woman he had met in a Houston rehabilitation hospital some two decades ago. The woman was 21 years of age at the time. Traveling in Europe with friends, she had fallen while climbing a tree. Now paralyzed from the waist down, and confined to a wheelchair, she was angry and confused; her aspirations for the future, dashed. “Disappointment” can not be a sufficient word to describe the devastation she must have felt in that Houston hospital.
And yet, as Rabbi Karff went on to explain, this woman eventually learned not only to cope with her tragedy, but to inspire others, as well. Today, she has become an internationally-recognized advocate for the disabled. This woman was a driving force behind efforts to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, changing the lives of countless Americans for the better.
Rabbi Karff’s story is no secret to the members of this congregation. Many of you know that woman to be Marilyn Golden, daughter of Clarice and Aaron of our own Temple family. Marilyn was not in control of the events that damaged her body. She did, however, take charge of changing her life. She grieved the losses she suffered, and then she went on living. Her disappointment must have been real, but it did not end her story. Her life is an inspiration to us all.
The opening verses of the selection Rabbi Stahl read from the Torah this morning tell of the birth of Isaac. We heard the happy ending of a long story, filled with both disappointment and perseverance. Sarah and Abraham are childless. Despite their legion accomplishments as founders of Judaism, the matriarch and patriarch of our people want nothing as much as they yearn for a child of their own. At one point, Sarah tries to take matters into her own hands. She instructs Abraham to father a child with her maid-servant, Hagar. In the ancient Near East, a woman could claim to be the legal mother of her servant’s child, so Sarah thinks that she can attain motherhood through Hagar. And yet, when Ishmael is born, Sarah remains unsatisfied. Hagar is the child’s mother; Sarah is not. Even our matriarch is unable to control her own fate. And yet, despite devastating disappointment, Sarah and Abraham remain faithful throughout their long lives.
Isaac arrives in God’s time, not Sarah’s. At the age of 89, well past menopause, Sarah is finally told that she will conceive. She laughs. She asserts that both she and Abraham are too old for conception to be a physical possibility. But God decides “who shall live and who shall die; . . . who shall be born and who shall pass on.” We do not. The miracle is just as inexplicable as the bereavement. Both are in the hands of God. Sarah’s disappointment and Isaac’s birth emanate from the same divine Source.
For about two years now, Toni and I have known something of the frustration of Sarah and Abraham. We were married in the presence of the congregation on this bimah, just over three years ago. We shared countless hopes and dreams; among them, our desire to start a family of our own. Naively, we assumed that child-bearing was obviously a power we possessed. Not quite as old as Abraham and Sarah, we weren’t exactly young when we married. Nevertheless, we so discounted the possibility of having problems that we gave ourselves a year of marriage before trying. Had we heard of friends and congregants struggling with infertility? Sure, we had. We did not consider, though, that we could be they.
Each type of disappointment has its own particularly devastating qualities. With infertility, the powerlessness is palpable. The waiting, insufferable. The decisions, heart wrenching. We have had to accept the unacceptable: normal, natural child-bearing may not be a power we physically possess. The ultimate verdict is in God’s domain.
At the same time, Toni and I are not utterly powerless. We have chosen a brilliant physician who truly cares, who explains everything as many times as we ask, and who really does want his rabbi’s wife to have a baby. Most of all, we persevere, even at times of profound disappointment. What will our next move be? We’re not sure. There are many options. With faith, we constantly re-affirm to one another: We will be parents some day. Our disappointment and our faith both spring from one divine Source.
Of all the men and women of the Bible, none can have experienced greater disappointment than the prophet Elijah. His entire life’s work was preaching to the polytheistic leaders and masses of ancient Israel. He delivered sermons. He cajoled. With God’s help, he even worked miracles. And yet, with rare and fleeting exceptions, Elijah could not convince the Israelites to worship only the one and eternal God. Faithlessly, they continued to serve the idol Ba’al.
In frustration, Elijah seeks his own death. Only then does God reveal the divine Presence most fully to the prophet. Elijah perseveres; his prophecy continues. Finally, when Elijah’s life does come to an end, he does not die, per se. He is taken up to the heavens in a mighty chariot.
Our tradition teaches us that Elijah will return to us at the end of days, to herald the messianic age. How ironic, that the biblical paragon of disappointment would also be the eternal symbol of Jewish hope.
We know, however, that this teaching is not a total paradox. Tragedy and redemption are two sides of the same coin, held in the hand of God.
We have seen disappointment and hope spring from one divine Source in Titanic: With faith in life, Rose makes plans that end in tragedy; but with that same faith in life, she later goes into her future with confidence.
We know that disappointment and hope share one divine Source in the life of Marilyn Golden: With a youthful zest for life, she found her future paralyzed; but with a mature zest for life, she filled that same future with purpose.
We derive faith from our Torah’s teaching that disappointment and faith emanate from one divine Source in the lives of Abraham and Sarah: Their infertility comes from God, but so does the blessing of Isaac’s birth.
We are inspired by the story of Elijah, whose disappointment and hope also flow from one divine Source. Surely, his prophecy in this world would have succeeded had God willed it, but God did not. Just as surely, Elijah will only herald our ultimate redemption at the hour of God’s choosing.
Each of our disappointments, however big or small, can lead us to humility, and ultimately to greater acknowledgment of God’s power. If we will persevere, with faith that disappointment and hope spring from one and the same heavenly abode, then we can truly be God’s partners in bringing redemption to our own lives, salvation to God’s world.
On this Rosh Hashanah, let us pray for that messianic day when disappointment will be forgotten, when sadness shall diminish and tragedy be no more. May it be God’s will to bring that dream to reality, speedily and soon, in our own day. Until then, let life continue, with all its disappointments, but even more, with faith, with hope, and with determination.