Rabbi Susan Elkodsi

Hurricanes are coming back to back, and a major earthquake hit Mexico on the anniversary of an even more disastrous earthquake in that country which killed more than 10 thousand people. Puerto Rico is being devastated physically and economically. North Korea has been testing nuclear missiles, we’re seeing a world-wide refugee crisis because of civil war in Syria, and Buddhists are slaughtering Muslims in Myanmar.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know where to turn first. I know I have to start somewhere, as I’ve often invoked Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, who said, lo alekha hamlakha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibateil mimena, “It isn’t your obligation to complete the task, but you’re not free to avoid it.” Nice homily, but what does it really mean, and how are we supposed to carry this out?

You’ve no doubt heard a story about a little boy, and elderly man, and hundreds of starfish washed up on the beach. The little boy was picking them up one by one and tossing them back into the ocean. The man said, “Why are you doing this? You can’t possibly help all of these starfish!” To which the little boy replied, “I can help this one.” So one starfish, one person, one community at a time, and we can help the world. Another way of looking at this: Why was all of humanity created from one being, adam? It depends on which ancient rabbi you ask, no surprise there. But the Talmud says, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved the entire world.” Another source says, “so that no person can claim he or she is better than anyone else, because we all began from the same person.”

While there are a variety of apocalyptic websites and posts suggesting that the recent solar eclipse and these continuing disasters indicate that the end of the world is near, Rosh Hashanah is hayom harat olam, the birthday of the world, and that has a very universal message. Passover is the birth of the Jewish people, Rosh Hashanah renews all of God’s creatures and creations, including the ones we wish weren’t around.

While my heart aches for those who have been affected, a recent Facebook post by Rabbi Arnie Samlan, who used to be in our community and is now in Florida where he weathered Hurricane Irma, asked, “This month brought us a great Rosh Hashana/values question: if you were facing potential disaster and could save only five things (not people) that would help you move forward, what would they be?”

I replied, and chocolate and coffee didn’t make the list. Fiber and my spinning wheel did. I think I should change my answer to add coffee and chocolate–or make sure they’ll be provided–but in reality, these are all things that can help keep me sane during a difficult time, and help me move forward at least emotionally. I felt very humbled by the stories of restaurant owners stranded in their restaurants who cooked up all their food for people who were displaced.

I wasn’t personally affected by Hurricane Sandy, but here I know tens of thousands were, and some are still recovering. That hasn’t stopped Long Islanders and New Jersians from reaching out and helping, as I’ll talk about tomorrow.

On Friday morning, instead of a sermon, we’ll be having a discussion about arguing with God, and advocating for humanity against God. What is our mission? When do we stand up, and how do we know if it’s time? In the words of John Fogarty, “Long as I remember the rain been coming down. Clouds of myst’ry pouring confusion on the ground. Good men through the ages, trying to find the sun; And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain.”

To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon, it’s not up to me to stop the rain, but I do have to step in and do what I can to help those affected. Rabbi Samlan’s question reminds us that life is fragile; the world can be a scary and unforgiving place, and together we can make a difference. But before we can do that, we need to think about what makes our lives meaningful, and what we need to move forward when life gets in the way of our plans.

As we think about moving forward into the year 5778, this book, this machzor, hasn’t changed, but we have. I wish you a shana tova, a good year, and may we be inscribed in the book of Life for life, for blessing and for peace.

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