5778 Rosh Hashanah Day
Rabbi Yaron Kapitulnik
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם שֶׁכּוחו וּגְבוּרָתו מָלֵא עולָם
Blessed are You, Source of Life and Nature, whose awesome power and strength fill our world and inspires us to be strong in the face of all of life's difficulties.
These were the words, I felt a need to say, as I, like all of you, realized the magnitude of the miracle that spared us from the horrific possible outcome of Hurricane Irma.
It’s hard to believe, but just a little over week ago, we were truly afraid. In fact, we were terrified. And we prayed and hoped for the best as we embraced and prepared for the worst.
For many of us, it was not our first hurricane, and yet – it was different. We were still digesting the images of people being rescued out of their flooded homes in Houston.
We were feeling the pain of those who lost all their possessions to the rising water, when we learned of Hurricane Irma, a monstrous hurricane gaining power in the Atlantic, wrecking entire islands, as it was on a path that seemed to promise a head-on collision with our homes.
Waiting was nerve racking. Tensions grew more and more with every Publix running out of water and with one gas station closing after the other. Whether you decided to ride out the storm at home or to leave the state, you did so with a heavy heart. Hoping you made the right decision, knowing that our lives, like the lives of so many in Houston, in Barbados and St. Martin, might change forever.
And finally, when the storm passed by us, and not above us, there were 24 hours of uncertainty, when each one of us in our own protected version of Noah’s ark, was isolated from our community, not knowing exactly what was happening elsewhere.
We were spared. We all know this could have been a hundred times worse.
For a few days, we walked around feeling “It could have been me." It’s the same feeling we have when we hear of a fatal car accident in the intersection we pass every day, or the neighbor, our age exactly, who had a heart attack, and never came home. "It could have been me."
One week after being saved from a huge threat, I ask myself, "What have we learned from the feelings of fear and uncertainty we experienced? Have we been changed by the sense of humbleness and of awe in front of mother nature?"
There is a famous story about a businessman, from New York City, who was running late to the most important meeting of his life. As he is driving around, unable to find parking, he realizes that time is running out and he starts praying: “God, please, please, I need to find a parking spot, if you help me I promise - I will start going to temple more often”...... Nothing happens.
He keeps driving around, his frustration growing…. “God, just one parking spot, what am I asking for? I promise I will be a better son and call my mom every day! ”... Still nothing.
Moments before his last chance to get to the meeting on time, and ruining any chance to seal the multimillion dollar deal - he tries one last time: “God, I will donate 10%, no 20%, of the revenue of this deal to my temple, all I am asking for is a parking spot!”
Before he finishes the sentence a car right in front of him starts pulling out. The man looks up to the heavens and says: “God, never mind, I found a spot.”
While this story makes us smile, I think it really hits home because it speaks to a paradoxical truth we are all aware of: the human ability to easily forget to express gratitude.
I cannot help but wonder. Are we, in our own way, that business person? Having experienced a miracle and only being able to display gratitude for a short period following it?
In the first days after the storm, it seems we were kinder to each other, nicer, more patient. But yesterday, in the parking lot near Starbucks, when I was not sure if I was parking or not and hesitated for a moment, the woman in the car behind me yelled “Idiot” as she maneuvered around me.
I am sure she is a good person, and probably just a week ago, opened her house to help a neighbor without electricity. But yesterday, business as normal. It drives me crazy. How could it be that we forget to express and to live with the sense of gratitude we felt during and immediately after the storm? Is there a way to maintain it?
You have heard me say it many times in the past, and you will probably hear me say this many times in the future. We are not born with a sense of gratitude. We are taught to be grateful. We develop an ability to be grateful. It starts with our parents who teach us to say, “thank you”, and continues with our teachers who teach us that, “sharing is caring,” and these lessons follow us all our lives through our religious and spiritual practices. And the emphasis is on the word "practice", because gratitude must be practiced. It must be expressed, not just verbally, but also through our actions.
Last night we heard from Cantor Alicia about our new practice, to write one thing every day we are grateful for, and to never repeat that one thing, and to do it all our lives. I challenge you to do that today. Buy a notebook and start.
Because if you feel like me, a sense of despair from our ability to so easily forget... we are the ones who must make a change - the change begins with us, each one of us must set an example of what it means to live in gratitude.
As I was writing this sermon, I thought about the dozens of eulogies that I have given and heard in my rabbinic career. And I was shocked. So many of them talked about a loved one who was known and remembered for loving friends and family, for being loyal, and courageous, and successful and loving life to its fullest. But not many people were described as constantly being grateful and expressing gratitude to what they had.
Would you be described this way?
Let us begin this year, making a promise to ourselves, to live in gratitude, to practice gratitude, to express gratitude, and to act in gratitude.
To be remembered as grateful people.
And I am not sending you on an impossible mission. Jewish tradition gives us amazing and powerful tools to help us in achieving this noble goal.
Not surprisingly, the first tool is an ongoing set of blessings we say every time we acknowledge goodness around us. From the basic blessing over wine and bread, blessings to welcome and part from Shabbat to a blessing said when we see a rainbow, the ocean or a great scholar.
And please remember the purpose of saying blessings - and we should say 100 every day - is not to please God. It is for the sole purpose of elevating our sense of awareness to the goodness of the world around us.
We are no strangers to blessings of gratitude, the Sh’hechiyanu for example, a prayer we say to thank God for entrusting us with life, for sustaining us and for allowing us to celebrate happy occasions. Blessings make us stop in time, they make us live in a constant state of gratitude.
But there is another blessing, one that is less familiar but that also expresses gratitude, and it is traditionally said after a person has avoided danger. This "Blessing of Thanksgiving" is known in Hebrew as Birkat Ha’Gomel.
The Talmud teaches that there are the four categories of people who need to say the blessing:
One who was released from prison. (Chavush)
One who recovered from a very serious illness (Yesurin)
One who has crossed the ocean (Yam)
One who has crossed the desert (Midbar) -Included in that category are all the other life threatening situations from which one is saved such as: giving birth, a wall collapsing upon you, an ox that attacks you (when’s the last time that happened to you?) …and in modern times rabbis added things such as car accidents and…HURRICANES.
These categories might sound random but they hide within them a beautiful secret.
In Hebrew, the first letters form and acronym - which is a word you all know - חיים
CHAYIM - life.
Life can only be experienced to its fullest, when we live with an awareness that at any given moment, what we have, can be gone. When we express constant, ongoing gratitude.
But Jewish tradition requires us to go deeper. It requires us to acknowledge that this blessing, it's “just words” – and that words without actions, are like fake jewelry that looks good and makes us look good, but has no real value. In the words of John F. Kennedy: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
That is why Jewish law demands from a person who was the recipient of God's kindness to only say the blessing, the Birkat Ha’Gomel, if that person in return, offers from his or her fortune and kindness to others who are in need. If that person, as we say, “pays it forward.”
Emphasis on the word PAY.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, when people were constantly sending prayers and love to the people of Houston, the mayor of the city said with no hesitation, “thank you for your love and prayers, please continue to send them, but first please send money.”
It’s not enough to express gratitude for what we have by sending love and prayers. WE need to show it with our actions. It is only when we can think of others who are in need, only when we can put their needs before ours for a moment, when we can truly say that we have more than enough, and we can share what we have - even if our neighbor down the road seems to have more than us.
In the era of Facebook and social media, it seems that sometimes we get away with posting an expression of gratitude, NOW EVERYONE knows how grateful we are. But there is no real accountability to follow with actions after the words.
That is why - Jewish law requires that this blessing of gratitude - BE SAID IN PUBLIC.
It is said in the presence of our community because we are held accountable for our actions by our community. “KOL ISRAEL AREVIM ZE LA’ZE” the entire people of Israel are responsible for each other.
We inspire others to be the best they are by leading by example, and we are inspired ourselves, when we hear the stories about people who give off themselves - like Duke Energy employee, Jim LeBlanc who was sent from North Carolina to restore power to 150,000 people without power in Pinellas County in Florida. He said in an interview, “It’s very rewarding. That’s why I love line work. I can’t sing and dance too well, but I can perform line work safely and not a lot of people can do this job safely.” He was interviewed because he missed his son’s wedding last Wednesday in order to be here to help. “I told him before I left, ‘Son, this is what we do. This is why God put us on this Earth. To restore power.’”
Part of what being Jewish means is that you are not permitted to separate yourself from the Kahal, from the community. That you are better, and we are better, and stronger when we hold each other accountable and work together toward shared goals. When we don’t look at our neighbor and leave it up to them to carry the burden. When we don’t think it’s not our duty to do as much as we can, but to do something, to show gratitude for what we have, for the lives we live.
And it is said in the presence of Torah because the sacred work of being kind, generous and compassionate is not necessarily an inherent character trait we are born with, but rather a sacred teaching, a commandment, part of the mysterious covenant we took upon ourselves as a people thousands of years ago.
We say this blessing in the presence of Torah and the presence of community to remind us, that when we remove ourselves from Torah, when we remove ourselves from the Jewish community, we are like a tree cut off from its roots, and with the absence of roots, how would we receive the substance we need to continue to produce the fruits of love, of compassion or of goodness?
If we truly feel blessed to have been saved from Hurricane Irma, if we truly woke up the following morning realizing how much we could have lost, and how much we still have, then let us say it aloud. WE will not be the same people we were two weeks ago. We will not allow ourselves to be selfish once again, to think just about what we need rather than what we have. Let us promise - ourselves - that we will keep our hearts open to others, that we will reach out to our neighbors, just as we did while grave danger was looming upon us.
Let us allow this experience to make us better, to push us forward, to motivate us to step up and fulfill our role, as a Jewish community, in this world that is hurting and licking its wounds.
Let us be inspired by a remarkable expression of gratitude that I found online, a letter written by an anonymous inhabitant of the Caribbean Islands after Hurricane Irma devastated his home. It was translated into English by Rolando Rodrigues and I am honored share this with you today. This is what this gratefulness in times of trouble looks like:
Thank you for bringing down the temperature in the Atlantic Ocean, the coral reefs are happy.
Thank you for renewing the forests, for cleaning the rivers, for uniting the people. Thank you for reminding us that the planet is still alive!!!
For reminding us that it is warming up and that we must continue working and educating ourselves so that those who live here make definitive changes in this regard. Thank you for reminding us that we are only human! That we are not superior to the power of nature.
Thank you for the families who stayed together and shared time as they have not done for so long, for the games they played, for the stories they told, for the time people spent together.
Thank you for the neighbor who helped her neighbor, for being reminded we are loved by the thoughts and prayers and the messages of love received from our friends and family abroad.
Thank you for what you gave us and for what you took away. Perhaps what you took away from us will help us have a simpler life, without vain attachments and by being able to pay more attention to the things that are really important.
Thank you, Irma.
If this unknown man, can express such gratitude, after losing so much, I hope we can feel humbled, I hope we can do the same.
I hope you will join me know in singing these beautiful words: “Ashira L’Adonai, Ki Gamal Alai.” I will sing to Adonai because Adonai has bestowed goodness on me. And I hope that this year our words will lead to action, as individuals in a community – so that we can all live, every day, in Gratitute.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם שֶׁכּוחו וּגְבוּרָתו מָלֵא עולָם
Blessed are You, Source of Life and Nature, whose awesome power and strength fill our world and inspires us to be strong in the face of all of life's difficulties