Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Safest Place in the World

Take a moment and go inside and ask yourself a question: When was the last time you really felt safe? I don’t mean ‘safe’ in the sense of ‘not in a war zone.’ I mean, when did you feel totally safe. Ultimately safe. Existentially safe in this life? Can you think of a time at all? Try as hard as you can to find a place, a time, a memory, when you knew that kind of safety, that kind of blissful security. If you’re anything like me, you might have a hard time locating a specific memory. Some of us may not be able to think of a single memory at all that fits this criteria. It’s a funny thing to contemplate, because somewhere inside, we feel like we must have had an experience of being cosmically safe, but it’s hard to find a memory that directly points to one experience of it. I can tell you that when I think about this question, I can’t find a particular story in my life like that; it’s more of a feeling about my relationships through my life. I’m particularly drawn back to my early childhood. I have memories of being held by my parents and grandparents, keeping me safe. I have other memories, ironic memories of feeling safe. I remember the very first time the woman who would be my wife took my hand for the very first time—it was a moment when everything else about my life felt anything but safe, but in that moment of her taking my hand, in that reassuring touch, there was a moment—however fleeting—of infinite safety. I suspect that most of us can, if we try hard, find similar kinds of memories; memories not so much of stories or anecdotes, but fleeting moments, moments of feeling close to another, moments that might have little to do with the outer circumstances of our lives, but rather more to do with a feeling of connection, of love, of spirit itself… Today is Sukkot. It’s a fitting holiday for this moment in our yearly journey: we have come through Yom Kippur. We have prayed and pleaded for our well-being—our very safety—in the coming year. We emerge humbled from the experience. And Sukkot itself arises from the profundity of the Yamim Noraim with a message of Simchah, of joy and celebration. It’s a wonderful counterpart to what we have just come through. But Sukkot is rich and complex in how it calls us to celebrate. We celebrate and rejoice on the razor’s edge between security and insecurity. If Yom Kippur weighed on our hearts, and maybe even brought us to tears about life’s insecurity, then Sukkot brings us to music and laughter in response to the very same insecurity. Like all the most profound messages of Judaism, Sukkot is paradoxical. We know entirely well that some of us might not be here this time next year to rejoice—vehayiyta ach sameach, and You shall be so joyful, despite this truth! What kind of crazy alchemy, what kind of black magic is this that our deepest existential insecurities become the silver platter on which we place our cup that runneth over? Indeed, Sukkot goes to extreme lengths to drive the message home of Yom Kippur. You think your life is so secure in your nice climate-controlled house? Well then go outside and gather some rickety wood and cloth and build a sorry excuse for a dwelling, with a bunch of leaves for a roof. You think the life you have is going to go on forever? Try to think that while eating lunch in the Sukkah, when one stiff wind can topple the whole thing right over! veHayiyta Ach Sameach! And you shall be so joyful even with all of that! Are we crazy? Actually, we’re not crazy at all… We have come through quite a few months in the history of the world. The Middle East has changed overnight. Israel’s standing in the world is all the more isolated. Here at home, our economic future looms with dreadful uncertainties. This summer in Washington, we survived an earthquake followed by a hurricane in a matter of days of each other. Last month, we commemorated ten years since the day those two towers—those two symbols of American might and strength—suddenly, so unexpectedly, came crashing down. Is it really crazy on Sukkot for us to leave our secure houses, to leave our fantasies about our own power, and to acknowledge the True Reality; to acknowledge that we’re really not running the show here, that we don’t know what’s coming, that we don’t know how much time we have left? Sukkot, in many ways, is the final acknowledgement of what we woke up to on Rosh HaShanah: that this life as we know it, is not secure. And the world around us shows us, it’s not just on Sukkot, but all year long, that it’s true. We never were in control, we never actually have perfect security in this world. Vehayiyta Ach Sameach! But you must be so joyful! Why? Because—and here’s the great and wonderful paradox of Sukkot—we may never be perfectly secure, but we can be safe! Ultimately safe! Cosmically safe! And the reason for this is because the safety that I’m talking about is not material safety. It’s spiritual safety. It’s just like those memories of feeling safe I asked you to remember. If you go deep enough inside, you can ‘remember’ feeling ultimately, spiritually safe, even if you can’t conjure a specific memory. And the reason for this is that it’s not a memory of a thing at all. It’s the memory of the knowledge of the soul. There’s that beautiful midrash about how, before we were born, we could see from one end of the universe to the other, but then, moments before birth, an angel comes and says ‘Shhh!’ and we are born not remembering all the deep soul-knowledge that we once had. Perhaps we can’t put our finger on it directly, but we know we once understood. And now in our lives, we can understand once again, just for fleeting moments—in the loving touch of a parent to a child, in the safe embrace we experience of our beloved. In those moments that flash by, we somehow know that we are so much more than all the troubles and trials and circumstances that limit us, that challenge us, that seem to threaten our security. For an instant, we come to know that somewhere, deep in our souls, there is a stillness, a peace, a Presence that no life-circumstances can touch. In fact, we discover in those moments that all the insecurities of our lives are hevel, a breath, a mere whisp of air. In those moments of feeling safe, which are really moments of true love and true connection, we understand that who we really are is beyond birth and death itself. We sit in the Sukkah to bring ourselves to remember who we really are. We are not this stuff that withers and is blown away on a breeze. We sit in that Sukkah and it doesn’t matter how beautifully we decorate it: nothing compares to the infinite beauty of our loved ones’ faces shining in the shadowed light of that Sukkah. Nothing can compare to the blessings of who we are, and what we have in each other right here, right now. We realize that however insecure and fleeting this world is, this whole passing and fleeting life of ours is a treasure because we get to spend this moment here for each other. And this achingly beautiful moment that is passing is so perfect, so joyful, because it reminds us that what we really share can never go away. VeHayiyta Ach Sameach—and so, how can we be, even in this fleeting and insecure world, anything but joyful in the face of the Ultimate Truth, in the faces of our beloveds, holding our hands, sharing our undying love. May each of us find the place where are safe this year in our Sukkot. May we come to realize that it doesn’t dwell in our Sukkah at all, but in the truest place of our souls. Chag Sameach!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Pursuit of Longing

I remember when I was a very little boy, around the age of three, my parents did a big mitzvah: they took in a woman who didn’t have a home of her own, and gave her room and board, and in exchange, she kept up the house and helped take care of me. The woman’s name was Ruthie. My parents tell me that Ruthie liked to keep to herself, with a sad, wistful, faraway look in her eye. Ruthie apparently had had a son once, a son whom she had lost, but she never spoke of him. Whenever my mother asked her about what happened with her son, she never wanted to discuss it. But one thing drove away her sadness: she loved me! I mean, she adored little three-year-old me. The sad, quiet Ruthie whom my parents describe doesn’t match my memories. All I remember is her unreserved smile, her laughter, her hugs, her loving touch, her carrying me and taking me everywhere with her. I remember feeling so safe and loved whenever I was around her. And my parents confirm this memory: she was a different person when she was with me. It was like her loving me filled up some kind of emptiness she had inside... And then there was the day that strange red car—that I had never seen before—pulled up in our driveway. I remember the grown-ups talking downstairs. I remember being told to play outside for a while. Then, the car was gone. And so was Ruthie. Later, I found out that on that day, out of the blue, Ruthie’s sister had shown up in that big red car. Without warning that day, she had Ruthie pack her things, and together they left for some state far away. Ruthie never said goodbye. The sisters didn’t say where they were going, and we never heard from Ruthie again. I don’t remember how I felt at the time, but looking back today, I’m certainly not angry with Ruthie. How could I be? I have no doubt about how much she loved me. She was not a woman of words. Even as a little child, I knew, I could feel deep down how much I meant to her. And to this day, I have no doubt that she simply didn’t know how to say goodbye. Her sister had shown up without warning. She was totally unprepared, and how could she find the words, how could she cope with such a goodbye to this little child who, for a brief moment of her life, filled a terrible emptiness. How could she express her gratitude, her love? I have no doubt that she would have, if she could have. If she’s still alive, wherever she may be, I hope she doesn’t feel regret. I hope she knows that I remember her, with love and with longing for her healing from her loss of her own little boy. I long for that with a longing that is really more that I can express in words... The Torah tells us the story of the end of Moses’ life. Moses says “V’Etchanan El Adonai,” “I pleaded with God at that time, saying, O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan...” But God did not grant Moses’ request. Instead, God said to Moses, “Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan…” It doesn’t take much for any of us to put ourselves in Moses’ place in this life. For each and every one of us, there is a Promised Land somewhere over across the great River of Life, somewhere where we know we can’t fully arrive to, not in this lifetime, no matter how much we crave it, thirst for it, desire it…it is beyond our reach. In every one of us, there is always a place of yearning of something more to say, to do, to accomplish. We tend to go through our lives, avoiding experiences of yearning and longing, experiences of feeling life as incomplete or lacking some kind of wholeness. The name of the game for us today is the Pursuit of Happiness, after all. We are taught to make the most of life’s opportunities, always to remember to have fun and enjoy life, not to get caught up in downer spirits. We are taught that we can always drown out the blues and the dissatisfactions of life if we get a great job, a great house, we own great things, go on great vacations, get great notoriety and ‘success’—then we can overcome that gnawing tugging of our hearts in the background—right? No. Actually, we can’t. People nowadays will shop to try to cover over that inner feeling of longing. They’ll shop until they become hoarders. Others turn to alcohol or sex or drugs or food or any manner of addiction to seek to escape that feeling of incompleteness inside that society says we “shouldn’t” have. But no amount of material possessions or diversionary activities can save us from standing on that summit with Moses, knowing that we can’t fully cross over… One of the greatest privileges I have as a rabbi is that I get to perform weddings. One of the most beautiful things in the world I get to see is the shining faces of a couple looking right at me under that Huppah: faces of such love and such pure joy and happiness. We all know, of course, that the moment we wait for at a Jewish wedding (before the kiss, of course) is the moment that the glass is broken and we shout Mazel Tov! I often get the question what the breaking of the glass means. Many of us have heard that it represents remembering the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem even at such moments of greatest joy. That answer is true, but it’s only partially true. It’s also a ritual act that captures, perhaps better than anything else, the real kind of joy that is happening at a wedding. When a couple stands under that Huppah, it’s a little taste of perfection, of perfect happiness; the Huppah becomes a little Garden of Eden. But that perfection cannot last, not in this world. We must break the spell. With the breaking of the glass, we ‘wake up’ and remember that the love and joy of that moment, as beautiful and perfect as it is, is a fleeting flash in a world where nothing lasts. I think that’s the real reason why we cry at weddings. We are overcome by longing—a longing that is really love itself welling up within us: love for that beautiful couple discovering such happiness in a world where life so quickly passes. It wasn’t for nothing that the song goes, “Is this the little girl I carried, Is this the little boy at play. I don’t remember growing older—when did they?” That plaintive song perfectly captures what I’m talking about! It’s all about yearning, longing. We Jewish people have a unique and brilliant relationship to the fundamentally human and universal capacity to long and yearn for what could be in this life. In other religious traditions, there are different responses to human longing. Some religions teach their adherents to sublimate their longings and surrender or submit to the will of the deity. Some Eastern religions talk about tangha- “desire” and “dissatisfaction” as the essence of all human suffering, the very thing that must be “extinguished” in our human nature. But we Jews, we go in the opposite direction: we embrace this longing as that which makes us most human, and closest to God. Longing and yearning are everywhere in Judaism. It is the essence of our prayers: we long for a return from exile, back to the Land of Israel, we long to rebuild Jerusalem, we long for the Mashiach. Our texts are filled with expressions of longing. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” we pray. We pray never to lose our longing. We may lose everything else, but please, O God, not that yearning.. Longing and yearning lie at the very heart-center of Judaism. We are the people who yearn. Longing is the national genius of the Jewish people, the essential magic ingredient of our survival through the ages. We may have known exile and centuries of catastrophes and persecutions. And how have we collectively responded to these losses? With anger, bitterness and hatred? No. We have, as a people, always responded with an ever-deepening longing to come home, to repair the brokenness of the world that we can feel in the broken places in our hearts. So many of us are filled with concern for our lives, for our families, for the world. Some of us reflect today and wish our lives could have been better, that we had made different decisions, or that we could get back a happiness or contentment that we remember we once had. Any and all of these life situations are a variation on the theme of longing. And the brilliance of our tradition tells us: don’t run away from these dissatisfactions, these concerns, even that sadness. Don’t be afraid to embrace it. Embracing our longing, not fleeing from it, is the secret to healing our lives. In other words, we cannot pursue happiness until we pursue our longing first! When we say the Ashrei, we say the line “Poteach et yadecha, umasbia lechol chai ratzon,” It’s like we ritually become like Adam in Michelangelo’s Cistine Chapel—now with hand inverted palm up toward God’s open hand: “You, God, open Your hand, and you satisfy every living thing with ‘ratzon.’ “ What is ‘ratzon?’ It is usually translated as God’s good “will” or “favor.” But in the Zohar, our sages teach us that what ‘ratzon’ really means is ‘longing!’ What does this mean? That in some mysterious way, the act of embracing our own longing, is how we come full circle and satisfy that very longing! That God opens God’s hand to us, and satisfies us by giving us our capacity for yearning. And why is this so? It is because in truth, as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, it is God who yearns for us. Our infinite yearning is the very image of God within us! Every time we feel that ache inside, it is God’s longing for us to come home. If you want to find the face of God in your life, seek the places where your life feels the most imperfect! When Moses stood on that summit and pleaded to cross over, perhaps that was the greatest piece of Torah he gave over in his entire life. He stands for us all. In his standing there, he shows us that if there’s anything that each and every one of us in this world has in common, it is a deep soul-knowledge that this world, this life we live is not perfected, not whole. Each and every one of us has within us a vast ocean of such depth of feeling, a sea of imponderable depths of love and kindness and goodness that we can’t possibly give over in this one little lifetime. We can try mightily, and still we fall short; ultimately we are misunderstood, we don’t make it. The great pathos of our human condition, is that it is not possible for any of us to live up to the potential of goodness that dwells within us. The myth that life is just about pursuing happiness ignores this truth. There is always a part of us that grieves over the love that we can’t give over—and to know this, to embrace it, paradoxically, is the only real wholeness—in Hebrew ‘Shalom’—the only real peace and joy. Why? Because our longing is our greatest motivator to action and to justice. When I know that I have more kindness within my soul than I can ever give over, and so do you, there’s a joining—you and me—and all I feel is compassion, the deepest empathy with you. And I am motivated to act out of kindness, as much as I can, for you. Even if we know that we can never do enough, even if we can’t save the world, or even one person, we can die trying. The greatest act of courage, the noblest of our humanity, is when we transform our yearning into action, when we reach out in kindness for the sake one another in this world. Every Mitzvah, when it’s all said and done, is yearning transformed into action. When we reach out fully knowing that we may never succeed—or perhaps we will—the success is not in the result, but in the action born of the longing itself for the sake of another’s happiness. The generation of Israelites that left Egypt journeyed for forty years and never made it to the Promised Land. It wasn’t their arrival, but their yearning will to journey forward—for the sake of their children and children’s children- that continues to inspire all future generations. “Lo aleicha hamlacha ligmor” “You are not required to finish the task,” say our ancient sages in the Mishnah, “V’lo atah ben chorin lehibatel mimenah,” “But neither are you free to desist from trying.” It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter how much of your potential you have lived up to, or squandered. It doesn’t matter if your better years are behind you, or if you have all the material trappings of success you could want. We’re all together in this. The aching of your heart that you know so well is there in the hearts of everyone you see, of everyone you know. There are no exceptions. I got my first taste of this truth so many years ago, in Ruthie’s bittersweet and unfulfilled longing for her own child, a longing that found only a fleeting respite in her love for me; a longing that motivated her to share nothing but joy with me, despite her sadness. From Ruthie, I learned that yearning and love are not different emotions, but are really two aspects of the same One Love, a love that comes from nowhere other than God. When we acknowledge this Love, this truth, we, together, make God’s dream for us come true for one another. Rabbi Heschel, as usual, summed it up best. He said: “…he who craves for the light of God [foregoes] his ease for ardor, [and forgoes his] life for [the sake of] love, knowing that contentment[--happiness--]is the shadow, not the light. The great yearning that sweeps eternity is a yearning to praise, a yearning to serve. And when the waves of that yearning swell in our souls all the barriers are pushed aside: the crust of callousness, the hysteria of vanity, the orgies of arrogance. For it is not the I [myself] that trembles [with longing] alone, [yearning] is not a stir out of my soul [alone] but [rather yearning is] an eternal flutter that sweeps us all.” On Yom Kippur, the day of fasting, may the hunger of our souls to be a blessing ignite our deepest passions to do what we can, in our own beautiful, limited ways, to make this world a blessing.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

God Doesn't Give Us More Than We Can Handle

It has been two and half years since my little girl, my youngest, Meirav, was diagnosed with Type 1 “Juvenile” Diabetes. In some ways, it seems like centuries ago, since that terrible day when she was rushed to the hospital, having trouble breathing, her skin, ashen. It seems like another lifetime now, the moment the doctors told us that our beautiful, perfect little girl had an incurable disease; a disease that would require insulin dependence and constant monitoring to keep her alive—for the rest of her life. I’ll never forget those images of those early moments and days in the hospital: my little one hooked up to all those tubes and wires in intensive care; her cries in fear and pain; the doctors, nurses, technicians frantically working around her; the look in my wife’s eyes as she steeled herself to be strong for her and for us all; my wife’s hand holding Meirav’s little limp hand in her palm. The ensuing days, trying to get my mind around this sudden new reality; the nurses teaching Batya and me how to manage this incredibly complex regimen of insulin, of blood-monitoring, of administering injections into our own child’s arm. It was all so overwhelming—Meirav’s fears and my constant attempts to sublimate my own fears. I remember, only in fleeting memories now, the despair, the moments of darkness, the sense of being betrayed by my hopes and prayers that God would protect my children from illness, from disease of this magnitude. But I wasn’t spared, as so many of us, despite our prayers, are not spared such things. That was two and a half years ago. Two and half years of us learning, together with Meirav, how to manage this disease. The frightening moments when she can feel her blood glucose plummeting, or soaring dangerously high. Learning to avoid disaster day by day—a process that is truly more of an art than an exact science. Two and half years later, Type 1 “Juvenile” Diabetes is the “new normal” for the Steinlauf family. But there’s a big difference between this moment and those first overwhelming and nightmarish moments. Today, I’m fine. So is my wife. And so is Meirav. In fact we’re all fine, and happy. And even more importantly, I no longer feel betrayed by God. In fact, despite everything, my faith at this moment is vastly greater than it was before. I don’t usually like to talk about life experiences as “testing” us, but if we choose to look at this experience of my child’s diabetes as a test of faith, then I would like to believe that my family and I have “passed” that test. And on this day, I would like to talk about how I can stand here before you, with a joyful and abiding faith in life’s goodness, despite everything. Back in my old synagogue, I knew an amazing woman, whose two young children suffered from multiple health problems. And she shared with me a saying that gave her lots of strength. She often said, over and over, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” And I was so happy that this woman had that belief to hold onto, to give her strength. But in all honesty, I wasn’t sure how much I agreed with that statement. After all, I can think of all kinds of people who are dealt more than they can handle: the mentally ill who are homeless, children who are abused and then die or are killed, people who die of starvation. In my experience, I have seen just too many people who couldn’t make it. But today, I think I understand what that saying really means. It’s not a simple platitude that denies the harsh realities of life. It is, instead, a statement of faith in life itself. It’s a statement that, in truth is not so much about God as it is about our very selves, our very souls—even when the worst thing--the unthinkable--happens, there’s a truth to the fact that we can handle so much more than we think we can. I share these stories this Rosh HaShanah for several reasons. First, among us in this synagogue right now there are so many with stories parallel to mine. So many of us bear stories of our children, or our parents or loved ones, and our brave struggles to hold onto faith despite so many hardships. In fact, every one of us faces in our lives the prospect of loss, of fearing for our loved one’s safety and well-being. I tell my story, as well, because there are fears and insecurities that we all share together: what’s going to happen to our livelihoods in this economy? What kind of future do our children have in a world that is changing so fast—and so much of that change is not for the good? And then there’s Israel. What prospects are there for our people and our homeland now, with the chances of a viable peace process looking so grim as events develop in the UN and in the middle east? We’re all together in this moment, beset by so many fears, so many possible nightmares. It would be nice, indeed, to have faith that there’s a God up there, who despite all these possibilities, is never going to give us more than we can handle… In the Torah, there’s a poignant moment when Rivka is pregnant with her twins, soon to be born as the rival brothers, Jacob and Esau. “Vayitrotzetzu habanim b’kirbah,” “But the twins struggled in her womb. She was plagued by a violent and difficult pregnancy. And so Rivka went before God and asked, “Im ken lamah zeh Anochi?” “If this is so, why do I exist?” Such a heartbreaking question! Such words that express so much suffering, pain and grief. And God answers her and says that two nations are in her womb, nations that will always struggle, but the older shall serve the younger. It’s quite an answer, but I have always been struck by the fact that it doesn’t quite answer Rivka’s actual question! I don’t hear in her words just a request for a prophecy. I hear the plaintive tones of a woman bowled over by her life, at the end of her rope. Lamah zeh Anochi—Why am I?! I hear the prayer of a woman who wants assurances from God that it’s okay, that she’s okay, that God will care for her. But God doesn’t give her an easy and straightforward answer in this story. God doesn’t promise that her path will be an easy one. God doesn’t give her any one thing to believe in, any one crutch to hold onto about herself, even though her request was deeply personal. Instead, God gives her the message that she’s part of a bigger unfolding story. Instead of a belief, God gives her something more valuable. God sets her feet on the path toward having faith in life’s unfolding path itself. As miraculous as the Voice of God was that spoke to her, it was not enough to impart the truest kind of faith in Rivka. The only one who could give Rivka real faith, was Rivka herself… You see, in our Jewish perspective, there is a difference between “belief” and “faith.” When we ‘believe’ in something, we’re always believing in a concept, a thought, a story about our life. In some religious traditions, there is a requirement or an expectation to ‘believe’ in a set of ideas or stories in order to be considered a true “believer.” Beliefs, of course, don’t just need to be religious. Beliefs can also be arrived at through reason and logic and deduction. But at its core, a belief is an intellectual exercise. It’s “up here.” Faith, on the other hand, is of a different order. Faith is about trusting an inner ‘knowing’ that runs deeper than ideas or concepts. If belief is a mental decision, faith is borne only of experience itself. Beliefs may defy logic. Faith transcends logic. Beliefs live in the intellect. Faith lives in the spirit, in our very souls. Rivka went to God in search of words to believe in; instead, she got a life-path that gave her faith that she was part of something far greater than anything she had ever dreamed about herself before. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed this insight most eloquently. He said, “Faith is not a feature of man’s mentality…It’s essence is not disclosed in the way we utter it, but in the soul’s being in accord with what is relevant to God…[in] our being carried away by the tide of [God’s] thoughts, rising beyond the desolate ken of man’s despair.” The writer Alan Watts said it even more succinctly: “Belief clings; faith lets go.” What does this mean? It’s not only life’s blessings, but sometimes it’s the worst of all experiences--even the experience of our own children suffering, our loved ones dying—these are sometimes the only things that can shake us to our core, that can bring us to let go of who we were, to let go of our arrogance, to let go of our expectations of ourselves, of others…of God. Sometimes it is only when life breaks our heart that we are broken open and finally able to find a deeper Truth within us that we never could have found before. I know that in my life, I have known moments of ‘lamah zeh Anochi,’ moments of such despair and darkness. At those moments, I couldn’t possibly find a way to believe that God was giving me something that I could handle. It was only after I clawed my way out of those moments that I discovered that I survived it, and was changed by it. How did I survive it? How was I changed? I don’t know. I have no idea. All I can say is that something carried me through those experiences—not a belief, not a concept, nor a story, not something outside of me at all. It was, in fact, my very brokenness that revealed a strength inside of me, a strength that could not come into existence without the brokenness itself. It was my brokenness that forced me to find new answers, to seek and notice all the wonderful and caring people and resources around me to help me find the light again. I have found that this strength born of life’s nightmares is not just a raw life-force. It’s a healing strength, a caring strength. A strength that inexorably brings me from despair to hope, from darkness to light, from confusion to clarity. It’s a strength that’s bigger than I am. Another name for that strength might be kindness. It might be compassion. It might be love itself. Or maybe, just maybe it’s God. But it’s not just God. It’s me. It’s my deepest essence, my deepest Truth. My Highest Self. It’s me in the image of God. William James once said “…if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. … we … find, beyond the very extremity of … distress…sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push though the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.” He was onto this idea! ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle’ doesn’t mean that God will necessarily spare us from tragedies and loss and pain. It doesn’t mean that if people suffer, they “should” handle it better because God gave them that suffering. God forbid! What it really means is that if you fear that you can’t handle even the worst nightmare, even the unthinkable—you might just be wrong. We look around at the world: we see so much violence, war, murder, anti-Semitism, children stricken with incurable diseases, people who are homeless and dying. And in our intellectualized realm of “belief” we conclude that we’d never handle any of that if it, God forbid, happens to us. But perhaps the very purpose of this life is for us to get over these beliefs about ourselves. Maybe there’s more within us than we can possibly imagine. Maybe there’s more kindness out there in the world than we give it credit for after all. Lamah Zeh Anochi—Why am I? Maybe God avoids easy answers to that question until we discover for ourselves that we are, in fact, so much more than “Anochi” --than what we thought we were in the first place! We can handle it—even if we lose our dearest treasured ones, even if our whole world comes crashing down on us, even if we must face death itself—because somehow, against our better logic, each of us is destined, sooner or later, to discover that there is a light within our souls that shines brighter than any darkness. A few weeks ago I took my daughter for a special father-daughter outing to the Natural History Museum. As we walked through the crowd, my daughter noticed a boy in a wheelchair being pushed by his father. The boy was a couple of years older than my daughter. Gaunt and pale, his legs were withered and small in his wheelchair. Later, Meirav said to me, “I feel bad for that boy.” I said to her, “Are you so sure that boy is really so sad? Maybe he’s having a perfectly wonderful time.” I went on to explain to her that so many amazing people come up to me and say with total care and good-will, and the most serious concern, “How is your daughter?” And I didn’t need to say anything further: Meirav smiled when I told her this. I smiled back. “You know, and I know, that you’re great. Maybe that boy was having as a good a time in the museum as you were.” You see, during the past two and half years since those difficult first days, we have not only learned how to manage a disease. My child has learned to appreciate the miracle of her body. She has come to find such strength, enough to want to reach out to other children and help them find their strength. My family and I have learned that there are so many people in this world—doctors, amazing nurses, people devoting their lives to helping, to being there, to finding a cure; there are so many miracles of medicine, of modern technology. We have come to see how many miracles keep my daughter alive and thriving day by day, moment by moment—miracles that are so much greater than anything we could have imagined. So indeed, we are great, and my faith is deeper now than anything I could have dreamed of before. I share my story this Rosh HaShanah because Meirav’s and my personal journey of faith is a perfect reflection-in-miniature of the Jewish people’s journey of faith through the centuries. Yes, our people know so many fears right now. And yet, we know that somehow, something miraculous and beyond our ken has carried us through thousands of years of loss and difficulties, of pain and anguish—and has brought us again to reasons for joy and to the deepest of wisdom and strength to sustain us for generations. Yes, Israel’s predicament seems intractable right now, and yet we know that, despite everything, our homeland has risen up to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and shining success-stories of this earth in our time. We might not know what concept to believe in right now that will give us answers to reassure us; and yet, more importantly, we can look into the soul of our people—the most miraculous surviving people of all time—and know, in a way that transcends reason, that we will overcome our difficulties in Israel and here at home. We can know that we will yet—as parents and children, husbands and wives, as friends, as citizens of this earth— we can and will survive whatever it is that will come, we can and will thrive, and we will yet be a shining light to the nations with a light that shines forth—so powerfully, so mysteriously, and yet so surely—from each of our hearts.