It is a joy to see everyone, and I wish you all a joyous and healthy year. We all love heroes, and I would like to share a story of a baseball player who became a great hero this summer. As the July trading deadline was approaching, it was announced on the news that New York Mets infielder Wilmer Flores was going to be traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. The Mets were in the middle of a game against the Padres when the story broke. Flores came in from the infield in between innings as the Mets prepared to go to bat. Suddenly the fans were shouting to Flores the news that he would be traded. The shouts of the fans were the first that Flores heard about it. How did he react? He cried. TV cameras caught him shedding tears throughout the rest of the game. He was sad about leaving his teammates in the midst of a pennant race. He was upset about the way he heard the news and his complete lack of control. In this raw moment of human vulnerability, Flores felt abandoned, flummoxed and shocked. I think this story shows that curve balls are often thrown at us. We know that often things happen that are beyond our control.
In another era, Wilmer Flores might have been ridiculed as a wimp or a sissy. Someone might have told him to suck it up like a man. Such a reaction might still occur in segments of our society. Wilmer Flores’s public weeping, however, struck a chord with many. His crying was a profound moment that resonated with the public for its genuine humanity. We all can identify with Wilmer Flores. His tears remind us that no matter how much we try to order our lives, things unfold in ways beyond our control. In the end, the trade was called off, and Flores has been playing very well for the Mets. For one brief moment this summer, though, Flores reminded us that we are all vulnerable to fear and uncertainty when we lose our sense of control.
If we can empathize with Wilmer Flores over the mundane matter of playing baseball, then we also can and must empathize with those facing life and death decisions. Imagine the the fear of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war-torn Middle East and north Africa who are seeking asylum in the West. Imagine the impossible choice faced by most of these people. They could stay in their homeland dominated by rampaging murderous thugs who enslave and rape children. They could also try to leave and risk the lives of their family on an overcrowded boat in the Mediterranean bound for Europe. If the boat doesn’t sink, as many have, they then face great uncertainty as to what will happen to them in Europe. Will they be granted asylum or deported to their home countries? The news media coverage of the plight of these refugees whose lives are in limbo underscores the fear of the unknown that these mothers, fathers and children must feel. The uncertainty of it all is enough to make any of us cry.
In today’s Torah reading, we read about Hagar, Abraham’s handmaiden and mother of Ishmael. After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Ishmael is seen as a threat, and Sarah prevails upon Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. It is a tragic tale of a mother and her son forced the leave their home with meager rations and left to face almost certain death in the wilderness. Our classical Jewish texts do not shy away from difficult situations in the lives of our ancestors that depict them as flawed human beings who don’t always make the best choices. Perhaps Abraham and Sarah might have found another solution to their household woes but the story that we have is that Hagar and Ishmael were banished into the desert. As Ishmael lay before his mother dying, the text describes Hagar’s moment of desperation: Va tisa et kolah va-tevk—she raised her voice and cried over the suffering of her son Ishmael. In the depths of her crisis, she is heard. God provides aide to Ishmael Ba’asher hu sham, right where he is.
In the other Torah and Haftarah readings during Rosh HaShanah we find other examples of our ancestors who out to God in anguish and are heard. God remembers those who cry out in despair and meets all of them Ba’asher hu sham—wherever they are. In case the selected Biblical texts are not clear enough that genuine cries of sadness and desperation are heard, the main ritual of this holiday hammers home the point. The sound of the shofar mimics different kinds of crying—cries of anguish, cries of brokenness and cries of hope. We blow the shofar to induce ourselves to awaken ourselves to be vulnerable and pour out that which troubles us. Our Biblical ancestors cried to God at their greatest vulnerability and were answered. In our moment of anguish and uncertainty we pray that God will be there for us.
Rosh HaShanah reminds us as we start the new year that so much in life is beyond our control. Our cries express that innate human acknowledgement of vulnerability. We go through much of our lives thinking we’re in command of our own destiny. The truth is, we’re not. How can we function in this state of helplessness? Thankfully, we are able to turn once again to our High Holiday liturgy for some guidance.
Un’tane Tokef is a climactic moment in the Musaf service in which we acknowledge our abject frailty in our world. In the coming year, we do not know who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water. This first section of Un’tane Tokef is the ultimate expression of humility and powerlessness in a vast and complex universe. U’mal’akhim yehapeizun, even the angels are trembling from their sense of powerlessness and uncertainty. Then, in a stroke of genius, the payytan, the poet, shifts gears and says: ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה, repentance, prayer and righteousness can help the pain of the decree pass. In other words, through our actions, we can reclaim a measure of control. We can’t always change the decree, but we can make its effects less harsh so that we can live with a new normal and help others do the same.
We feel the tension between helplessness and assertive action in all aspects of our lives from the global scale to the communal scale to our personal tragedies. The essence of this season is to transform our sense of helplessness into hope. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done.
Let me return to the deep horrific refugee crisis that is gripping Europe as hundreds of thousands of people seek to rebuild their lives shattered by war, persecution and terror. The image of a toddler boy Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Turkey has churned stomachs and galvanized attention to this harrowing situation. Hundreds of drownings in the Mediterranean from overloaded capsized boats, scores of people found dead in a truck in Austria and the desperation in the Budapest train station compound the horror of this situation. The civil war in Syria and the savagery of ISIS have gone on for years. We’ve seen beheadings, chemical warfare, slaughter of Christians and Yazidis, and bloodshed of Muslim Shi’ites and Sunnis towards each other. All of this has gone on for at least four years, and the world has done virtually nothing. Va-tisa et kolah va-tev’k. Thousands of people are crying out in despair. With desperate throngs of asylum seekers landing on the shores and in the train stations of Europe, the world is finally beginning to hear the desperate cries of the suffering. The question is will we be there—Ba’asher hu sham—for them. The development of this crisis wasn’t in our control, but our response to it is. We all know reasons cited for not turning away Syrians and others. There is fear of radical Islamic inspired terrorism spreading to the West. Many Jews fear rising anti-Semitism in a European environment already hostile to Jews. There is the valid critique that the US and Europe should have done more years ago to prevent the explosion of violence and anarchy in the refugees’ countries of origin. The renowned Holocaust scholar Dr. Deborah Lipstadt expressed these concerns, even as she said she is still writing a check to refugee relief. In times such as these, we help first and ask questions later. After all, we know what it’s like. It wasn’t so long ago that the Jewish people were shunned in Europe and the United States. In the 1938 Evian Conference, 32 European countries effectively slammed the door on the Jews, refusing to offer them refuge from Hitler. Remember the “Voyage of the Damned”? The SS St. Louis carried nearly 1000 Jews from Germany across the Atlantic. They were denied entry into Cuba and the United States and forced to return to Europe. Many of those passengers died in the Holocaust. Before Hitler enacted the Final Solution, the Nazis were willing to let Jews emigrate to British Mandate Palestine, but the British enforced strict quotas and denied Jews entry to their own homeland as European Jewry was about to go up in flames. Of course, we know that even after the Holocaust, the British prevented desperate survivors from entering Israel. Our communal memory knows what it’s like to be refugees as our homes and families are burning.
England’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Then I realised that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, ‘Love the stranger because you were once strangers,’ resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.”
It is ironic that the destination of choice for many of the asylum seekers is Germany, 70 years after the world finally stopped the Nazi reign of terror. To its credit, Germany has welcomed close to a million refugees. Other nations have been less forthcoming. Rabbi Sacks has called on England to carry out the equivalent of the kindertransport that brought some 10,000 Jewish children to England and saved them from certain death in the Shoah. Rabbi Sacks notes that the Torah reminds us to love the stranger because we were once strangers. In this world gone mad, it is easy to feel helpless; yet, somewhere, there must be some measure of human decency that will bring shelter and peace to the asylum seekers. Other rabbis in England have organized efforts in their community to support refugees and aide their absorption. All of the major American-based or American supported Jewish defense organizations are leading the way in helping with resettlement of refugees in Europe. In particular, HIAS and the JDC are working with Jewish communities throughout Europe to provide both financial and hands on support. These efforts are worthy of our support.
On the day that we read of the plight of Hagar and Ishamel, we note with pain and sorrow the anguish felt by many of the spiritual descendants of Hagar and Ishmael who are seeking lives of freedom and tranquility. Va-tisa et kolah va-tev’k. Like Hagar, they are raising their voices and crying out in despair. God met them Ba’asher hu sham—right where they were and provided for them. The Jewish people, along with the entire Western world are pressed with the challenge to imitate God and be Ba’asher hu sham for these people. Furthermore, while the development of this crisis was beyond our control our response to it is not. We need to direct our teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah to respond to the harsh decrees of the past year. We’re called upon to stop the pain. This is our test of the moment.
The last year drew to a close with fear and cries of despair from across the ocean. My prayer is that this time next year that the tears we shed will be tears of joy as the children of Abraham come together to rejoice in a more peaceful world.