Fanning Alive the Spark of the Divine

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5779

As Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on September 9, 2018


Chag Sameach. It is such a blessing to be with this community once more to welcome in another New Year. It brings me such joy to be able to look at the faces in this room and to know more of your story than I did at this time last year. You and I have spoken on your birthday, you and I have studied together, you and I have run into each other at the JCC and at Costco. We have been in community for your good times, your hard times, Shabbat times, board meeting times, social justice times, and life-long learning times. We have greeted one another in the Sunday morning drop off line, you and I have hi-fived at youth events, and we have sung together for Shabbat sing and Friday with Family. You and I have held hands and prayed during moments of distress, we have embraced in moments of grief, and we have engaged in deep conversation over the wonderment of existence. Ashreinu ma tov chelkeinu. Happy are we, How great is our portion.

[Sermon begins]

There is a story of a hassid who complains to his rebbe that things haven’t been going well. There has been illness in the family and business setbacks, and he is afraid that God and the community don’t care about him. He and the rebbe are sitting in front of the fireplace talking, and the fire before them is just about to go out — there are only scattered embers glowing. The rebbe takes the poker and stokes the embers into a heap, he adds a bit of wind with his breath, and then there is a burst of flame and a large fire begins to burn.

"You see?" said the rebbe to his student — "Do you see what happened when I gathered the embers closer and breathed a bit of life into them? The embers turned to flames, the fire came back to life. When the coals are separated from each other, there is little fire and each ember will fade. But when they are close to each other, they ignite one other and the fire is renewed. 

It's the same with people. When we are alone and separated or disconnected from each other, our spirit is in danger of dying out. But when we gather together, we get energy and comfort from one another,  there is a burst of fire and hope is renewed.

We gather together with the warmth and fire of community, to bring in our Jewish New Year, this Rosh Hashanah, 5779. For many, the sounds, rhythm, and prayers of the High Holy Day season bring great comfort and provide a sense of order. Others may be uncomfortable with the prayers, the rhythm of the service, or even the notion of God.

These Days of Awe can also be difficult because of the intense reflection our tradition calls upon us to do. Engaging in deep reflection is no simple task — it can make us feel uneasy, and it can be jarring. It isn’t easy to be criticized. It is often hard to think critically of ourselves. Yet, our task for the next ten days is to engage in deep reflection, and in doing so we elevate our souls — that spark of God that resides within each of us. We will undertake this spiritual journey personally and together. No one is alone on the journey.

Along with those who already experience great comfort, this Rosh Hashanah evening welcomes the doubters: those who feel disconnected from the words on these pages;  those who sit like the student with his rebbe and are consumed by the tsuris, the difficult moments, that life brings us — caring for a sick parent, job trouble, personal health, finding love, and the list goes on and on. But being consumed by difficult moments does not necessitate a correlation to either doubt or faith. Sometimes those who face continued adversity are the most faithful among us while those who have seen the most reward hold little faith.

Many of the words of our machzor’s pages are over a thousand years old and yet they have been intentionally retained as a part of our liturgy. There is room for us to resonate with the words and there is room for us to take pause. Judaism wants us to have the space to doubt these words. Judaism doesn’t want us to blindly believe in each and every word we recite. We are not a religion of blind acceptance and obedience. Despite 613 commandments, no where in our Biblical Hebrew do we have a word for “obey.” Rather we are compelled to sh’ma, to listen, to hear, to understand, to discern. Our rabbinic tradition is based in questioning. Page after page after page of the Talmud is a rabbinic conversation full of questions, arguments, and no declarations of having found a singular truth. We as modern Jews are a continuation of that conversation between faith and doubt, the literal and the metaphoric.

We are a people who lionize the questioner. When I see children after their school day, I never asked them if they learned anything interesting at school, but I always ask them if they asked any good questions. We are a people who thrive in that liminal space of eternal wondering. Jewish tradition relies on us to question and doubt. When we call out throughout these next ten days the words, Baruch atah Adonai or Avinu Malkeinu, “Blessed are You, Adonai” and “Our Father, our Ruler” I want us to hold space for our doubts and our beliefs. We simultaneously hold so many dichotomies in our lives: hate and love, sadness and joy, contentment and anger, doubt and belief. I share with you my beliefs and my doubts this Rosh HaShanah with the hope that it ignites a piece of your soul toward a deeper and more meaningful experience of these High Holy Days.

Like our Jewish mystics taught, I believe that each of us has a soul, and within our soul resides a spark of the Divine. We are not separate from the Divine, but rather God is a spark within each of us. The spark sits deep within us like scattered embers waiting to be fanned into flames. Prayer acts as the fanning motion we take to keep a fire alive, to give it the oxygen it needs to turn from a spark into embers and from embers into flames. As a rabbi, I am living life in service of God, the Jewish people, and the world. Through this service I seek to help others build their own fan, if you will, to find a way to keep alive their spark in good times and when all hope seems to diminish.

The Hebrew Union College requires students to undertake at least 400 hours of training in clinical pastoral education. Many of us completed our time in service to the sick and the healers as chaplains at the Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. As a hospital chaplain, I did my rounds in the Intensive Care Unit, offering a calm presence for the nurses, doctors, patients and their families as they navigated some of the most difficult and trying moments in their lives. For an entire year we encountered patients young and old. We saw life, death, and a desire to feel compassion, companionship, and care. 

There were limits to our abilities. There were those whose sickness was so severe, that our role was to guide them toward a spiritual place of acceptance and comfort, and to help their family and friends connect with their loved ones in their final days, before their final breaths. The intensity of that work will stay with me forever. 

I saw hundreds of patients that year, but one patient’s experience has stayed with me, and his story so powerful, that it is worth revisiting this Rosh HaShanah. This is the story of Daniel, the man in room 14. I’m not even sure what his diagnosis was, but he was really, really sick. The doctors only gave him a 10% chance of making it through the week. He was in his 50’s, unconscious, intubated, and deathly ill. His wife was often in his room during my rounds, so she and I would talk about him, his life, their marriage, and her hopes for the future. At the end of our time together I would take his hand, sit at his bedside, and offer them both a prayer for strength and comfort.

Avinu Malkeinu, Sh’ma Koleinu, Avinu Malkeinu, hear our pray. Holy One of blessing at this time we ask for your presence in this room, that you guide the hands of the doctors and the nurses toward gentle care and the utmost focus as they seek to heal and provide comfort to Daniel. May Daniel feel a sense of calm and comfort through these words. God, give Daniel the strength from within as he battles, and may he always feel your nearness and that you are with him. Holy One of blessing, as Lori sits here day after day and cares lovingly for her husband in this time of great need, may she find the energy to continue to bond with him. May she feel comfort through her belief in You and continue to offer prayers of strength and hope to Daniel. Through these prayers and the care of his doctors, may Daniel find hope, strength, and healing. Amen.

We prayed in this way every other day for almost six weeks. Every once in a while as I sat in prayer holding Daniel and Lori’s hands, I thought Daniel might be squeezing mine, but it was hard to tell. Most of the time he laid very still on the bed. 

Then, one day, I walked through the hall of the Intensive Care Unit and into room 14, and Daniel was awake. He was still intubated so he couldn’t talk, but when he saw me and heard me say hello his eyes widened and he motioned for his wife to grab a little white board so he could write something. Shaking, he scrawled the letters to spell “thank you.” He put down his marker, and squeezed my hand. He closed his eyes, and signaled to me that he’d like for us to pray. So I offered up another prayer at his bedside:

Avinu Malkeinu, Sh’ma Koleinu, Avinu Malkeinu, hear our pray. Holy One of blessing, in your miraculous work oh God, we offer thanks that Daniel is alert and with us. Continue to guard his mind, body, and soul toward a full recovery. Provide Daniel and Lori with patience for the journey ahead, and may they both be strengthened through one another and the care of their doctors and nurses. 

Two days later, we prayed. Two more days later, we prayed. Two more days later, we prayed. About a week later, I entered that room, room 14, and he was sitting in a chair, he was no longer intubated, and the color had returned to his cheeks. Before I could get in a word of greeting, he locked eyes with me and said, “I heard you every time you came to pray with me, and your prayers gave me strength and hope. I never really cared for prayer before all of this, but I sure do now.”

I cannot explain why he lived and someone else on the floor died that week. I certainly wish we all understood why things unfold the way that they do, but that is not our reality. Please hear me in acknowledging the sense of betrayal that comes when we put everything into our prayers and a loved one still dies. We hold this truth so close to our hearts, and simultaneously we hold stories like Daniel’s, the man in room 14. This is at the very core of the friction between faith and doubt. I don’t believe this was the power of God to heal as some light force from above. Rather, through the work of the doctors, the nurses, his own biology, and the spark of strength and hope deep within his soul, Daniel made a full recovery and left the hospital just a few weeks later.

In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel I emphasize:

Prayer invites God’s Presence to suffuse our spirits, God’s will to prevail in our lives. Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will. 

The power of prayer isn’t to close the wound, but to mend the spirit. We want to believe in the power of prayer to bring comfort, strength, and hope. My experience with prayer in the hospital that year and my continued service to people has shown me that prayer can make a difference in someone’s life. It’s usually not a life and death difference, but rather how the work to ignite the Divine spark within can empower a person toward progress or comfort. 

Each of us has the power to recite these spontaneous or fixed prayers for others and for ourselves.  As we join together this Rosh HaShanah, and soon for Yom Kippur, we offer prayers not only for ourselves, but also for the people sitting next to us. When we walk into this space we show up for our community. When we call out Zochreinu, U’fokdeinu, v’hoshienu, “remember us, be mindful of us, and redeem us,” we say these words not only for ourselves, but also for the person to our left and right. When we reach the rhythm of Avinu Malkeinu, we call out to the universe and inward to ourselves, to God, for the people to our front and to our back. Know that the people around us are doing the same, and meditate on how this practice reshapes our entire prayer experience. Allow yourself and your time in prayer to be transformed. 

When we fan the divine spark with our breath, love, and prayers, this is when we are the most powerful. It only takes two people for a community to begin; that one other person at the side of a hospital bed; that one other person who sits next to you at synagogue; that one other person who calls to check-in when they realize they haven’t seen you in a while. Like the rebbe who stokes the coals and breaths life back into the fire, in this new year may each of us be that breath of life for someone else. May our community be strengthened by the warmth of the sparks that reignite within our souls this Rosh HaShanah, and may we all feel a renewed sense of connection to ourselves, one another, and the world.

A sweet and good year to each and every one of you. Shanah tovah um’teukah.