sermon: Erev Rosh HaShanah 5777

Life Unexpected

What are we supposed to do with failed expectations and unplanned moments?

Our baby arrived six weeks early. Everyone told me that it was going to be fine. But I was afraid of things not going according to the plan.

A year ago I stood here with you welcoming in the year 5776. We spoke about the new machzor, the soulful ideas of prayer and opening ourselves to new ways of thinking. The year was pregnant with possibilities. And what I knew but few others did was that I, too, was pregnant.

From our new machzor, I read hin-neni muchan – here I am ready and open to receive all that the year has to offer. I prayed that I would be open to new experiences, new friendships and new ways of thinking about Torah and prayer. In my preparations for the High Holy Days this year and my own cheshbon ha’nefesh, I realized that I was open in some ways but not all. In addition to being open to the year, I placed some really high expectations on it and on myself. I was going to fully engage in temple life until my due date in early March. We were going to move into our new house six weeks before the baby was to arrive. And this baby was going to be like the first one, just born in a different state, in a different year. In reality, I guess I was not ready to receive all that the year had to offer. What I wanted was for things to happen on the planned schedule. Guess what? That didn’t happen.

Our little baby arrived six weeks early, exactly one week before we were to move into our new house. Everyone told me that it was going to be fine. Everyone told me that the expected outcomes of a child born at 34 weeks were really great. Honestly, I was scared and closed off to these new possibilities. Not only was I afraid of what complications might come with a baby born early. But I was afraid that what I expected would not happen the way I planned.

Isn’t that what we all want? For things to happen the way we dreamed them to be?

The days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is the time of year when we reflect on the expectations that we had for the previous year. We think about all of the promises we made to ourselves to be better people, to be more open to change, to be more vulnerable, to be more of who we are. We stand here and think about the expectations we held for ourselves last year and look back and possibly laugh (or cry) that the year did pan out the way we envisioned. This goes for the highest expectations to the lowest and even those that we could not put into words if we tried.

So what are we supposed to do with those failed expectations and unplanned moments?

The Torah portion that precedes the one we will read tomorrow offers us a peek into the idea of unexpected moments. Sarah, a barren old woman is sitting in her tent a few days after her husband had his circumcision at the age of 90. Abraham goes out to meet three men traveling past their tent and offers them a meal. Sarah jumps into action and fixes them a detailed meal and offers her best hospitality. As they are eating, she overhears them telling Abraham that she is to bear a child. In that moment she laughs at the absurdity, even though she believes in God and divine prophecy. Sarah laughs at this unexpected turn of events and names her child Yitzchak, contained in it the Hebrew word for laughter, after her incredulous laughter in that moment.

Laughter might not be our first reaction to an unexpected event but acknowledging it aloud or to trusted friends can bridge the gap between shock and acceptance.

We might start by reminding ourselves that things don’t always happen the way we want them to. Laughter might not be our first reaction to an unexpected event but acknowledging it aloud or to trusted friends can bridge the gap between shock and acceptance.

I know some people in this room have had had a really rough year. There have been serious illnesses; deaths in the family, business plans that did not pan out, a child dealing with mental health issues, and fertility challenges. Others have experienced minor disappointments along the way; like not getting the promotion we wanted, not getting into your first choice school or even not losing the five pounds that you promised yourself that you would. We put high expectations on the events in our lives because we want a sense of control. However, without acknowledging the hard parts of the year and just brushing them under the rug, we miss the opportunity to heal. People often say that they don’t want to talk about their disappointments because it feels like complaining. There is a difference between complaining and reflecting. Rosh HaShanah begins our journey of cheshbon ha’nefesh, accounting of the soul. To account for our soul, we have to know what our soul is carrying around. This is the time of year when we acknowledge feelings and thoughts of loss and pain. Those moments are real, those thoughts are real and this is the place where we can express the pain and mourn the losses that are so present for us right now.

As we reflect on the failed expectations of the year, it is up to us to find kernels of beauty, and meaning and possibly even joy. Reb Nachman of Bratslav said,

When all we see and feel is negativity, we must search within ourselves for an aspect of goodness. What he called a white dot within the black, and then find another and another until those dots form musical notes. Our task is to find enough musical notes to form a melody – a melody that will define our core and affirm our fundamental goodness.

quoted in This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew, pg. 128

This teaches us that even though we must recognize our disappointments, there are always a few bright spots in the darkness.

Some of the holiest moments in life converge with some of the most unexpected.

The Torah portion we will read tomorrow starts with a different woman dealing with an unexpected series of events. Hagar, Sarah’s servant -turned mother of Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, is cast out from the family. Sarah finally has her son, Isaac, and does not feel the need to keep Hagar around anymore. She sends Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham asks for God’s help in this matter and God sides with Sarah. Abraham packs up Hagar’s belongings and sends them into the wilderness with just a little water and food and the belief that God will provide. Distraught, Hagar leaves her son under a tree because she cannot bear to see him die of thirst. God hears his cries and pays attention to the two of them. God speaks to Hagar and she lifts her eyes to see a spring of water. The water was there the whole time; she was just unable to see it. Her situation was so dire that her vision was clouded to something right in front of her. And so it is with us, when we are dealing with something painful or shocking, we can be clouded to the gems that lie beneath the surface.

Last year, as much as I tried to imagine who my son, Asher, would become, I could never have imagined the person I hold in my arms every day. First of all, I was convinced he was a girl and there he was, a boy. We spent many long hours watching his little body acclimate to the outside world during his stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and even then we started to see that he is an easy going baby who lets us know when he needs something. There were ten healthy fingers and toes. There were cute dimples. And now there are even cuter baby fat rolls and giggles. The first time he smiled, I was in awe. He looked nothing like his big brother, he truly was a new person in the world. Even though there were some challenges associated with him being born early, I could never have expected the immense joy that this new human brought to my life. Since his birth there were hugs and tears. There was an outpouring of love and gifts, meals and cards from our community. Even though I was expecting a new baby and I had been through it once before, the unexpected aspects provided me with the most meaning.

I’m sure we all can think of a time this past year when something did not turn out the way we planned. When remembering those moments, I challenge us to find a spark of goodness, a flicker of hope that you might not have known before.

We now stand here and look out into the new year of 5777. We are one year older and wiser that we were last year. Inevitably, we will face disappointments and challenges, but by learning from our experiences from last year we might greet them differently.

This year, we might try relinquishing control over the perfect outcome and accept things as they come. I am still trying to learn this lesson and I imagine I am not alone. Sometimes we have to dig to find the hidden gem that is under the surface. In the end, this is the life we have and it is upon us to find parts that bring us joy or meaning or depth even as mysterious as they may be. That is the work. That is why we get the opportunity to start over. This year, let’s add a new blessing to our prayer vocabulary – Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, chacham hazarim. Praise to you, Adonai our God, Sustainer of the world, You see what is hidden from our sight. Let us bless the moments of uncertainty, bless the moments of fear, recognize the beauty in life and may this new year bring us strength.

Shana Tova!