Friday, May 16, 2014

Excerpts from 1989 s High Holidays Sermon on Loneliness, the Homeless and the Origins of Beth El Cares

Modern American life segregates us, unlike any society in history.  People lose one another.  Grandparents find themselves thousands of miles from their grandchildren.  The torah says, “Love your neighbor,” but many of us don’t even know who are neighbors are.  We have become atomized.  Where once extended families lived on the same block  -  cousins, second cousins, and Reb Nachum the beggar, now there are only husbands and wives, a friend or two, and if they’re lucky, maybe some live-in help.  What an incredible strain to put on a marriage  -  to expect your spouse to be your community as well.  That is what America has become.  Sweet land of loneliness.  All those lonely people.  Where do they all come from?

One doesn’t have to visit a homeless shelter to see the face of American loneliness close-up, but it helps.  If one can see the faces at all, that is.

Christmas Eve:  1987.  I joined several of you at the local homeless shelter, allowing the Christian volunteers a night off.  Since this is the day for confessions, here’s one of mine.  Were it not for the tug of my profession, I might well have stayed home.  I’m no saint and my body was not sorely needed.  I’ve no doubt that I would have found some excuse to sit by the TV and watch the black and white version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  But I felt I belonged at the shelter.  So I went  -  and did not regret it.

At first I felt useless.  By the time I arrived the food was ready to be served and fifty or so had already come in from the cold and lined up to receive their dinner, cafeteria-style.  I managed to make myself useful by dishing out stuffing from an aluminum tin.

As the guests passed by I would say “Stuffing?” and they’d nod, eyes glued to the floor.  Half a dozen went by, maybe more.  Then came this small girl of six  -  or seven at the most, escorted by a guardian.  I couldn’t let her pass the same way, just another faceless encounter.  A little girl, without a family on Christmas.  As she walked past, I dished out some stuffing, and searching for the right thing to say, blurted out, “Merry Christmas.”  And what I suddenly witnessed were the two brightest thank-you-Santa eyes I’ve ever seen. There is a line in the finale of the musical version of “Les Miserables,” “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  I was never crazy about it at first, but when I think of that girl’s face, suddenly the line takes on a whole new meaning for me.

That one moment encapsulates all that makes my job worthwhile.  All the committee meetings, the 3,000 piece mailings; it all suddenly became worth it.  To ease another person’s loneliness is to ease one’s own.  I was able to understand why the word “religion” comes from the Latin, meaning “to bind.”  For that girl and I were at that moment bound by religion, both hers and mine.

That little girl’s case is extreme, but each of us in his or her own way can feel the same numbing, overwhelming emptiness she must have been feeling.  We all at times feel that no one cares.  We all feel forgotten.  We all are lonely.

Let us invite others to share in the wellspring of life that exists within us, contained within our solitude.  That is where true relationship begins, where the I meets the Thou.  And the sounds that will come forth from such an encounter are not be the sounds of silence, but the sweet sounds of children at play, the buzzes and murmurs of men and women praying together, learning together, bound together as the very term religion implies, bound by a shared commitment and a community, bound by prayer and the triumphant blast of the shofar.

Coming together as concerned individuals, we can demonstrate that Temple Beth El cares for individuals.

Beth El cares  -  about the hungry and homeless of Stamford, as we’ve demonstrated many times over, and as we’ve shown again this Yom Kippur, with our food collection last night.

Beth El cares  -  about those who are part of the Temple family.  All of them.  All individuals.  As an example, I’m proud to announce today that we are in the process of establishing a support group for single-parent families, with the first meeting to be held in the next two months and the first program being a special Hanukkah party.

Beth El cares  -  about our new Soviet Jewish immigrants, many who are attending a Yom Kippur service for the first time, here today, by special invitation.  To all of them I say, “Dobro  -  Pojaolovart,” “Welcome!”

Beth El cares  -  about the particular loneliness of parents and teens.  A number of our members have been at the forefront of community-wide efforts to address this crucial issue.  We are proud of our association with the Adult Council for Jewish Youth, and we urge you to support it, and to attend the program series that has been planned.

This is our Temple, as it is and as it can be.

At the outset I discussed the Shma Kolenu prayer.  In truth, this prayer is not a cry of desperation uttered from a broken human being to a distant God.  It is a cry uttered from the depths of man himself, from his afflicted soul, from his loneliness.  And the cry is directed not at God, but inward.

We must hear that cry, our own cry from within.  And we must hear the cries of others.  For the sake of that little girl at the shelter, for the sakes of all the lost and forgotten, the living and the dying, the widowed, the divorced, the single and the married.  The children with one parent, with no parents, with two, three or four.  The children with AIDS or drug dependency.  The unemployed and the overworked.  The homesick college freshman and the home-bound senior citizen.  The child prodigy, pushed to excel, and the mentally challenged adult, pushed aside.

SHMA KOLENU!  -  they say  -  “Hear Our Voices!”
SHMA KOLENU!  -  the cry also comes from within.
V’AL TA’AZVENU!  “Do not abandon us.”

We must not be afraid of our loneliness.  We must hear its cry and embrace it  -  so that we can embrace others.  There is so much work to do.

Walt Whitman wrote:
            I saw in Louisiana a live oak growing
            All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches.
            Without any companion it grew there uttering leaves of dark green.
            And its look  --  rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself.
            But I wondered how it could utter joyous leaves,
            Standing there alone without its friends near.
            For I knew I could not.

Whitman understood that the oak drew its strength and majesty from within.  It needs no other trees in order to utter joyous leaves.  But he realized that without other people around him he would not be able to flourish like the oak, for he would want to share that strength with others.

Let us try to be like the oak, drawing strength from within.
Let us be like the poet, sharing that strength with others.
Let us never close ourselves off from others.

But most of all, let us never be afraid to be alone.

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