On Love: Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5778
Delivered by Senior Rabbi Rachel Timoner
Thanks to Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, John Makransky, and Rabbi Shai Held for inspiring this sermon.
Just a few weeks ago my family and I traveled to Los Angeles to visit my children’s father in the hospital. He has been an unconditionally loving presence for my sons since they were born. We were there because he’s sick and he might be dying. We stood there, all of us, at the edge of his bed, shocked that his young life could be ending. He was peaceful, ready with a smile. Each of us took time alone with him, we promised that we would always remember and always be connected no matter what. And at the end, as often happens, there was only one thing remaining: love. In the eyes, in the touch, in the words: just love.
This is a time of deep stress in America. Hate is on the march. Callousness and cruelty are practiced in the White House and the Congress. Our country is careening from crisis to crisis. Human dignity is degraded. In response we’ve seen love rallies and love slogans on t-shirts and protest signs. I don’t recall ever seeing the word LOVE invoked in the public sphere more often than in the last year. But what exactly does it mean? “Love” can sound facile. How do we make it real?
When the Senate was considering taking health care away from 22 million people the last time (let’s make sure we stop it this time!) and the halls of Congress were full of protesters in wheelchairs, I saw a sign that I will always remember: “I don’t know how to teach you to care.”
The policies of our country often have been devoid of love, long before this administration. The war on drugs and the foreclosure crisis are two examples. The failure to love is not unique to our new president and his followers. Can we admit that we often don’t love the stranger even though we say we do, and that we often fall short in loving the people closest to us, and even in loving ourselves?
Everything we deeply wish for—for ourselves, our country, our world—is dependent on our collective ability to love.
Sometimes we doubt love, like we doubt God. Love is invisible like God, but when we feel love we know it is real. We learn to care by practicing. By doing it over and over again, and in so doing we discover our limitless capacity to love.
We all want, more than anything else, to be loved. This is not, as Abraham Twersky teaches, “fish love,” where you say “I love fish and what you mean is fish tastes good to you, so you took it out of the water, killed it, boiled it and ate it. People fall in love,” he says, “because they think this person will give me what I need. That is not love.”
The Torah commands us to love in three ways: 1) love your neighbor as you love yourself. The great sage Rabbi Akiva taught that this is the most important rule in all of Torah. 2) Love the stranger. This, along with not harming the stranger, appears more than any other mitzvah in Torah. 3) Love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your being. Let’s think of this as loving what is within and beyond all living things.
Rabbi Sheila Weinberg1 teaches how these three mitzvot are connected. You learn how to love the people you know (your neighbors) by learning how to love yourself. You learn how to love the stranger by loving the people you know. You learn how to love God by loving the stranger.
Here’s what we mean by “love:” seeing the goodness in another person; deeply wishing them well; giving them attention, care. When you glimpse goodness in another person, you spontaneously love them. Like the unconditional love that a wise parent has for a child,2 when you wish for a person’s safety and happiness, you love them. You do this not because they’ve earned it or because they will give you something in return but just because they’re alive.
In an environment of overwhelming stress, an environment characterized by cruelty, our tendency is to shut down and close our hearts. This is personally dangerous and it is dangerous for our democracy. We need a strategy that keeps our hearts awake. I suggest to you that this strategy is love. We can create a refuge for our hearts by noticing what is good and trustworthy, and by spending time in physical sanctuaries such as this one, where we bring our attention to all that is worthy of gratitude and awe and love.
If I say to you that love pervades our world, that there is a great love holding you at all times, it may sound fanciful. But that is exactly what Judaism claims to be true. In the Ahava Rabba prayer we say every morning: we are loved by a great love. In the Ahavat Olam prayer we say every evening: we are loved by an eternal love.
In his book, The Heart of Torah, Rabbi Shai Held contends: “For all its insistent focus on the deed, and for all its impassioned commitment to the life of the mind, Judaism is also, profoundly, a religion of the heart…God loves before God commands…” In the Book of Exodus, Aaron, Moses’s brother, the High Priest, is instructed to gather manna, the food that fell from the sky as a sign of God’s love, and to put the manna in a jar in front of the Tabernacle, so that any time the people come to God, the first thing we see is how loved we are.3
This Rosh Hashanah morning, I would like to ask you to try on the possibility that you are beloved, you are loved by an unending, unconditional, unfathomable love.
If we pay attention, we will see that our lives are suffused with love. We would not be alive today if not for hundreds of thousands of moments—maybe millions of moments—of love we’ve received from birth until now. Even if the people around us failed to see us or care for us the way we needed, even if we experienced trauma, there was love from somewhere that sustained us. Had to be.
See if you can call to mind right now a moment when you knew you were loved.4 It could have been a long time ago or recent. Think of a specific time, a memory, when you felt so loved, when someone radiated a wish of love to you through smiling eyes, or a quality of presence, or words. Picture their kind face sending love to you, the wish that you be safe, happy, well. Imagine that you can absorb that love and fill yourself with it, down to your toes, in every part of your being, in your very bones, in your mind, any place of tension in your body. Saturate yourself with that love. Then, imagine that the love is coming right through you to the people you care for. See their faces in your mind’s eye. And as that love fills them wish for them to be safe and happy. And then you can extend love to a stranger, eventually to the whole world. Doing this every day changes the heart.
Consider how you have been loved by people you don’t even know or people you’ve long forgotten. Think of those who believed in you, teachers, coaches, those who clapped for you, laughed at your jokes, answered your questions, made sure you were safe. The doctor who listened, the store clerk who helped you find what you were looking for, the waitress who filled your water glass. All of the people you’ll never meet: the person who carved the pews you are sitting on, who baked the challah, or picked the vegetables or made the wine. How many hearts and hands hold us up every single day.5
In her poem, “At the Corner Store,” Alison Luterman6 writes:
It was a new old man behind the counter,
Skinny, brown and eager.
He greeted me like a long lost daughter,
As if we both came from the same world,
Someplace warmer and more gracious than this cold city.
I was thirsty and alone. Sick at heart, grief soiled
And his face lit up as if I were his prodigal daughter
Coming back to the freezer bin in front of the register…
I lumbered to the case and bought my precious bottled water
And he returned my change, beaming
As if I were the bright new buds on the just-bursting-open
As if I were everything beautiful struggling to grow,
And he was blessing me as he handed me my dime
Over the dirty counter and the plastic tub of red licorice whips.
This old man who didn’t speak English
Beamed out love to me in the iron week after my mother’s
So that when I emerged from his store
My whole cockeyed life—
What a beautiful failure!—
Glowed gold like a sunset after rain.
I remember a time in my life when I felt very strongly that I was not worthy of love. It was my high school years. I was quiet, serious, different. I happened to carpool with the most popular girls in the school and was an involuntary audience to their talk about boys, the latest brands of purses, and the fashion choices of other girls.
One of my biggest terrors was ridicule. I heard it happen every afternoon in the car—laughter over a girl’s imitation designer purse, derision about attempts to break in to the popular clique. Oh, how I dreaded that shame. Preventatively, I saw myself with a harsh critical eye. I found every possible embarrassment. And I wondered whether someday I could be worthy of love.
Now when I see the president of our country mocking others, I think of the teens who feel unlovable. I think of all of us who still have that teenager within.
Perhaps you, too, sometimes doubt whether you are worthy of love. Perhaps in those moments when you are most aware of being loved you find yourself turning away slightly, for you don’t know how to receive it.
The Chasidic master Nachman of Bratslav has advice. Find just one tiny dot of goodness within, he advises, just one example when you did something good. The first dot is the hardest to find. The next comes more easily. From there you string them together into a song, your very own niggun. Then you can look outward and find those tiny dots in others and hear their song.
I was warned when I came here that New Yorkers are a cynical bunch and CBE members are no exception, and that I should not be too earnest. I shouldn’t do things like talk about love.
But guess what? You can’t fool me. I see you. When you hold each other at the side of the grave, when you stand weeping for yarzheit, I see you. I see how you look at each other at a shiva minyan. I see you come out with meals when someone is sick, so many we can’t update the spreadsheets. I see you look at your children on their bar and bat mitzvah day, your hearts overflowing, and I see you look at each other when you’re holding your new babies. I see you show up day after day for your aging parents and your aging spouses. I see the goodness shining at the core of your being.
I see you fill the entire temple house with supplies for refugees. You’re the people who open your sanctuary whenever there is need, who packed 10,000 eggs after Hurricane Sandy, who now are galvanizing for Houston. You are the people who filled three buses for the Women’s March and showed up to Raise the Age. You are not cynical people. You may have to tell yourselves that for whatever reason, but I see who you are. You are yearning for opportunities to love. You have immeasurable love inside you, bursting.
But, you say, I’ve done it with the wrong motivation, out of guilt or for appearances sake. I’ve failed to love the people closest to me or to care about the stranger. I’ve been unkind. I’ve snapped in anger. I’ve been impatient. I’ve been unforgiving. I’ve closed my heart.
I’m sure that’s true. It’s true for me.
And that’s why we need to commit to the practice of love. It’s not just a feeling that comes over us, it’s a practice. I am convinced that resistance is not only for the streets or the courtrooms, resistance is here (in the heart) and it is here (in this room). Resistance is the spiritual, communal, and political practice of learning how to love more consistently, more generously, more honestly, more freely.
Because as much as this is a political crisis, this is a crisis of the human spirit. We are shaken: We look at our president and ask, is this really who we are? Is it true—survival of the fittest, the strong dominate the weak, every man for himself, the point is to win? What do I believe now about my fellow Americans, about humanity? Are we really just greedy, selfish, hateful, power-lusting creatures?
This is a decision point. The future of our society could depend on how we decide. Are we with the cynics or do we believe that love wins? By definition no righteous gentile was a cynic. Elie Wiesel said, “If you see love as a compromise, a defeat, you’re mistaken. It’s a victory. In a time of war, when men are filled with death, this is the time to love. This is the time to choose. An act of love may tip the balance.”
Those who advocate love are always dismissed as naïve. But all of the people we admire most in history stood on the side of love. Do you think that Rabbi Akiva, the great sage who taught that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the most important line in all of Torah, when he was brutally tortured and killed by the Roman Empire, was unfamiliar with human lust for power? Still he advocated love above all else. Do you think that as Gandhi fought the British colonialists he did not know about greed? Do you think that as Martin Luther King faced down rabid mobs, he did not know about hatred?
Our heroes understood greed, power, hate, but they decided to dedicate their lives to love. They understood that love is often the most effective strategy for confronting evil. Evil can be temporarily dominated by force. But love defeats evil by reminding us of our goodness.
This is a place to practice love. I still remember the first time I walked into a synagogue as an adult. How intimidating it was. How alone I felt.
Imagine if every time a stranger or member came through the doors of CBE, we greeted them like the man behind the counter in the corner store in Alison Luterman’s poem. Imagine if people you do not know in this room reached out to get to know you and make sure you feel at home.
At my synagogue in Los Angeles a story was told of a past president whose parents were founding members. A couple of years after his presidency, he came to services one Friday night and was greeted by a member who went out of her way to welcome him. She asked if he had a place to sit. He said no. She asked if he wanted to sit with her. She introduced him to all of the people around her. She then asked, “Are you new here? I want to make sure you feel at home.” He told her that he’d been attending that synagogue all his life, and that he had served as president for three years. She felt embarrassed, but he reassured her, “You’re making me proud to have been the president of this congregation. I would much rather you greet me as if I’m new, than fail to greet me because you think you should know who I am.”
We’re not there, CBE. Members come here for years without making a friend, without ever being greeted. Newcomers stand at the edge of the room and no one turns toward them. This year, Jennifer Ford and Dana Luria did what they called a Welcome Audit to assess the experience of newcomers at every point of entry. The board adopted as a priority their 50-point plan to make CBE more welcoming. But no matter how we improve our systems, ultimately the feeling of this place depends on you. It depends on how generous you are with one another. Whether you’re offended if someone doesn’t remember your name. Whether you’ll be the person who takes that risk to welcome someone who may not be new, whether you’ll walk away from your group of friends to talk to someone you don’t know. Whether you’ll sign up to be a greeter or spontaneously greet people whenever you’re here; whether you’ll hold the door open for someone, hang up their coat, or at oneg walk around giving out cups of wine; whether you’ll look for someone who is standing alone and ask them to sit with you. Most of the time you won’t feel like it; it’s inconvenient, it might be awkward. This is where the practice of loving your neighbor and loving the stranger happens. This is practice for the rest of the world.
Look around right now. Here are other human beings alive at this time. And they’ve chosen to be here. You are looking at the faces of people who know how hard it is to live in this world right now, who feel so many pressures. How hard it is to keep a family together or be a single person and have a job and raise children and grow old in a climate of so much meanness. Yet the people you see are trying and haven’t given up. These are your people.
As de Tocqueville taught a long time ago, the most important defense we have against tyranny is right here, in communal organizations. There are very few remaining institutions in America where we can generate real, in-person communities characterized by love. Not by the slogan of love, but the real practice of love. Behaving in a way that shows you care is an essential act of resistance to totalitarianism. This is how we demonstrate that there is no in group and out group, no hierarchy in the value of human beings.
The strength of communal organizations is defined by the thickness of the relationships within them. But you don’t know each other. That must change. The person next to you has a joy they yearn to share; a sorrow they’re bearing. Because you are here, you can enlist us to join you in caring for them.
Chesed means lovingkindness. Every CBE member is part of Chesed. It means that we take care of each other, we show up for each other when times get tough. It’s bringing a meal to someone after she breaks her leg. It’s showing up at shiva for a congregant you don’t know who lost his father. It’s organizing meals for a family overwhelmed with new twin baby girls.
There is a family here with two young children. This year, one parent was diagnosed with cancer, and suddenly not only was this family facing terrible fear, but the other parent was rushing back and forth from work to the hospital to the kids. The community immediately rallied. Together they took care of this family. When I went to visit the family in the hospital, their anxiety about a major procedure was completely overridden by their feeling of gratitude. With huge smiles, they told me that the love they received from this community changed everything.
Chesed is not just nice, it’s revolutionary. Rabbi Shai Held teaches, “Religion is about many things—one of them is…to surrender the illusion of self-sufficiency…Because we are human, and therefore embodied and fragile, the question, ultimately, is not whether we will be dependent, but on whom…The Torah…is a story about leaving destructive dependency [on Pharaoh]…and discovering life-affirming dependency as a radical alternative…Dependency is an irreducible part of the human condition and should be embraced as such…There is courage and dignity in learning to say, “I need you.”
This is the power of Chesed. If ever there was an eloquent response to our president’s contempt for weakness, it is establishing relationships of life-affirming dependency, the ultimate bulwark against autocracy and the ultimate safeguard for freedom. Imagine a civil society anchored by communal institutions in which we have the courage to say, “I need you.”
Here is how we do it:
Pay attention to love. How loved you are; how much you already love every day. See the goodness in strangers and your beloveds. Notice people being kind to one another—on the street, in the subway, at the store. Leap at opportunities to love people.
Make CBE a place where you practice caring for other people. Turn, reach out, be curious, be kind. Tell me (or Josh or Marc) when you learn that someone is facing a hardship or a loss. We can only help if we know.
This practice of love will heal our hearts in this time when our hearts need healing. It will build thick relationships that protect us. And it is how we develop a civil society that can withstand tyranny.
On the High Holy Days we become aware of the fragility and temporality of life. We know that we will die. And when that time comes, what will matter is love. As we lie in bed at the end of our days, the most important question will be: in this life, how much and how well did I love?
Compassionate One, Source of Life, give us refuge for our hearts in these difficult days. Teach us that it is safe to depend on others. Let us trust and feel how loved we are, and give us the discipline and courage to love ourselves, one another, and You.
1 This sermon was inspired in its entirety by my teacher, Sheila Weinberg. Her teachings are throughout. I also learned this from Rabbi Jonathan Slater, via Rabbi Lydia Medwin.
2 From John Makransky, Awakening Through Love
3 Shai Held, Heart of Torah
4 Thanks to Sheila Weinberg for teaching me this meditation.
5 Adapted from John Makransky’s, Awakening Through Love
6 Adapted from John Makransky’s, Awakening Through Love