Sign In Forgot Password

“I'm struggling” - Sermon for Second Day Rosh Hashanah

11/08/2021 01:14:18 PM


Rabbi Hesch Sommer

I’m struggling and maybe you are, too. Let me clarify with what I am struggling. During these past eighteen months I have lost something and I am worried that I may never regain it. I guess I could say that it is one of those many symptoms of the COVID pandemic, but it isn’t one that is talked about very much, if at all. It took me a long time to acknowledge the loss, and even more time to start to deal with the shame I am experiencing from this loss, but something for me has changed.

The realization of my malady came during my annual examination. During the past month, I was standing before my Doctor, Rophe Hacholim, and was being asked some standard questions like, “What’s changed for you since your last visit?” I thought for a moment and then I responded, “I’ve lost something. I’ve lost a sense of feeling.” Doctor Rophe Hacholim listened, but waited for me to reflect more on my loss. I continued to explain, “I used to think that I was an empathetic human being, but I seem to have lost that ability. In the past, I would always give the other person the benefit of the doubt. I would try to understand where he or she was coming from and even when I disagreed, I tried to find a way to build a bridge of understanding, of mutual respect, of tolerance. But now, when I hear someone say something which I know to be inaccurate, misleading or just plain dumb, I don’t feel anything but disgust and even anger.” I shared with Doctor Rophe Hacholim that there have even been moments when watching the evening news that I have found myself screaming, “You idiot!” at an interviewee who had just stood his or her ground in uttering the most inane statement with confidence while sinking in the quicksand of misinformation and conspiracy hogwash!

You see, dear friends and members of the Beth Israel community, my annual exam is known in our tradition as Cheshbone Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. And my Doctor, before whom I stood, as we all do, is the Rophe Hacholim, The Healer of the Sick, Adonai Eloheinu, Our God.

In my accounting this year, I have noticed how much I have lost and how much is broken within me and I have been praying that what Leonard Cohen wrote will be true: that through the cracks, through the brokenness, some light might eventually come through.  

There is a wonderful story related in the B. Talmud (Sanhedrin 111a).  R. Chanina b. Gamla recounts that when Moses encountered God on Mount Sinai, Moses ascended to heaven and saw God writing, ‘Slow-to-Anger.” Moses asked, “Is this only for the righteous?” God replied, “For the wicked as well.” Moses snapped back, “Let the wicked be obliterated!” God warned him, “In time, you will need this.”

And indeed, when Israel sinned in response to the report of the spies, bemoaning that they ever left Egypt, Moses implored God to forgive the people. God said to Moses, “Did you not say to Me that ‘Slow-to-Anger’ should be for the righteous alone?’ 

From this Talmudic insight, Rabbi Amy Scheinerman offers, “Our tradition teaches us to temper the human proclivity to judge others harshly with God’s proclivity to find merit in us and forgive.”

In the hope that the loss of my ability to offer an empathetic response will not be a long-term symptom, I have been seeking redemptive remedies our tradition offers so that I may recover my sense of understanding and affirm that basic core value that we, all of us, are B’tzelem Elohim, created in the Divine Image.

In Midrash Rabbah Bemidbar (22:2) we are taught this obligation, “If a person sees great multitudes of people one should say: ‘Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Who knows their inner-most secrets. For, as their faces are not like each other, so are their temperaments not like each other, every individual having a temperament of his or her

 own.’ ”  The midrash goes on to offer a reflection by Moses to God, ‘The mind of every individual is revealed and known to You. The minds of Your children are not like one another. Please help those who lead bear with each one of Your children as his/her temperament requires.’ 

We are called upon to be aware of, and sensitive to, the nature of each and every individual we encounter. We need to struggle against the temptation to lump people together, thereby dismissing them as individuals and failing to understand their struggles and brokenness.

I admit this has become more and more difficult for me to do, and when I couple this with Ben Azai’s adage from Pirke Avot, I acknowledge that the remedy may be more painful than the disease itself. Ben Azai said, “Despise no one and call nothing useless, for there is no one whose hour does not come, and there is no thing that does not have its purpose.”

This is not Andy Warhol's “Everyone gets 15 minutes of fame.” This is me sitting next to people who think it’s their right to drill a hole under their seat in the life boat where I, too, am a passenger!

I’m a good swimmer.  I even have lifeguard skills and experience, but come on!

Yet, Leviticus 19:18 admonishes, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you should love your neighbor as yourself.”

I need to love my neighbor as I wish to be loved. For if I limit myself in my outreach, my caring, my love for the other, how can I possibly fulfill that which I pray every day?

וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכׇל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכׇל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכׇל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃ 

You will love Adonai, Your God, with all your

heart, with all your soul, and will all your strength (Deut. 6:5)


In essence, my empathetic response is actually a product of self-care. To build bridges of understanding, I must first understand my own needs and then acknowledge that the other, too, struggles with his or her needs. Through my self-care, I find a path to care for others and ultimately by doing so, I affirm my love of God and the Divine Creation. As it attests in B.Talmud Yoma (86a), “Live your life so that God will become loved through you, through your actions.”

So, while I am still struggling, I have come to realize that my redemption, my healing, can only happen when I am ready to make it happen. As the prophet Isaiah said (60:22), “I, the Eternal, will hasten it (will hasten the healing, the deliverance from our pain, our brokenness), when the time has come.” And how will you and I know that the time has come?  When we remember to live our lives as if it is already here, each and every day. 

This is what I am working on for myself and if my struggle in any way resonates with you, I wish you the strength and determination to pursue your own self-care, your own healing. Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will. 

2nd Day Rosh Hashanah 5782

Beth Israel Synagogue


Sat, May 18 2024 10 Iyyar 5784