We say to each other, “Shanah Tovah – May you have a good year.” We say to each other, “Shanah tovah u’m’tukah, may you have a good and sweet new year.”
These are the same words we used to greet each other last year at this same time. When we look back on this past year, surely there were sweet and good moments: we welcomed new life into our community, celebrated with b’nei mitzvah students and their families. We shared sweet moments under the chuppah, and saw so many members of our community move from sickness to health. We experienced countless good and sweet moments in between – the accomplishments completed, the challenges overcome, the big and small victories and celebrations and love.
Yet, last year, just weeks after we wished each other shanah tovah u’m’tukah, a good and sweet new year, 11 members of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania were brutally murdered in the deadliest attack in the history of the Jewish community in the United States.
After this tragedy, we came together. Here, many miles from Pittsburgh, thousands of Jews and friends from around San Diego packed our campus beyond capacity to mourn, to offer comfort to each other, and to take a stand against the hatred that fueled the attack in the first place.
And then, just six months later, as members of Chabad of Poway were celebrating together the end of Pesach, another terrorist brought bitterness, pain, and murder to the Jewish community. After that tragedy, we came together again, we mourned, and we offered comfort to each other. But as Tammy Gillies, the regional director of the ADL said, “It’s wonderful that you’re here, but I don’t want to do [these vigils] anymore.”
And of course, there were other events inside and outside our circles that made this year seemingly unbearable. According to the ADL, America in 2018 was home to more anti-Semitic incidents than at any time in recent history. Locally, alongside the tragedy of murder in Poway, we have faced smaller, but increasingly insidious examples of anti-Semitism: swastikas spray-painted in our neighborhoods, bullet-holes at Temple Emanu-El and hateful words scrawled on a synagogue in Northridge. Our state has faced a series of catastrophic wildfires, with no end in sight. Our society grows ever coarser, with vile political rhetoric, increased examples of racial inequality, treating immigrants worse than criminals, gender discrimination, and worsening climate change. On a personal level, many of us have suffered painful diagnoses, changes in relationships, and the loss of loved ones. The list goes on.
But while every year has painful moments, this year hurt.
In conversations with many of you, I have heard you express your anxieties, your fears, your anger — and I am right there with your shock, sadness, despair, and yes, sometimes, the desire to withdraw. I understand it. I share it.
But when we hurt, Jewish tradition and thought does not linger on why something bad happens, but rather, when bad things happen, how we should respond. In fact, the few times the Rabbis have posited a rationale for disaster, they focus on a response that is rooted in the values of love, compassion, and community. When we are angry, when we grieve, when we hurt, we can turn to God in prayer, turn inwards to ourselves, and turn to our family, to our neighbors, to our community. Judaism gives us three relationships as frames for healing: Bein Adam l’Makom, Bein Adam L’Atzmo, and Bein Adam l’Chaveiro – between a person and God, between a person and themselves, and between a person and others. How can we achieve healing through a relationship with the Divine, through ourselves, and together as a community?
I’m aware that each of us has a different relationship with the Divine. I am not going to tell you what to believe, but I do want to explore that relationship. After a difficult year like this, or when something disturbing or frightening happens, some of us ask the question, “Why does God let this happen?” I am guessing you have asked yourself exactly that question at some point this year. I have. It is a natural struggle within ourselves. Know that Jewish theology does not have an answer for why God lets bad things happen to people. Instead, we are asked to engage in the theological struggle. Our name, “Am Yisrael – the people of Yisra-Eil,” literally means “the people who, Yisra-eil, struggle with God.”
There were moments I struggled with God this year. I struggled to figure out what is God’s role and what is my role. Maybe controlling behavior is not why God resides among us and within us. Maybe God’s job is not to stop evil but to teach us goodness, not to destroy bad behavior but to inspire us to build kindness, not to alter inhumanity but to command us to embrace and nurture tolerance and engage in chesed, compassion. Some injustices in the world are brought about by truly evil people we do not yet, and may never, understand. I don’t need to give you examples of that.
Yet, and make no mistake about it, prayer is one way that our relationship to the Divine can help facilitate healing. You are likely are most familiar with our prayer for healing, Mi Shebeirach l’Cholim. One of the unique characteristics of this prayer is that its core message is surprisingly not of becoming cured, but rather that we attain a “r’fuah sh’leimah – a complete healing,” a healing that makes us whole again.
The second relationship we can use as we struggle through our pain is bein adam l’atzmo – how we relate to ourselves. The High Holidays are an entire season dedicated to reflection, looking inwards, and making the repairs necessary to find healing. There is a question we should all ask ourselves: How has this year changed us? When disaster strikes, it is even more important to make sure that we are taking care of ourselves and not just those around us.
I’d like to suggest a tool from my teacher, Melissa Frey, to help facilitate this reflection: write a letter to your future self. “During these holiest days and holidays, let’s [take this opportunity] to return to [ourselves] with authenticity and meaning, and take the time to be introspective and reflective [by] stepping away from our computers and cell phones, making eye contact, and putting pen to paper.” How will you imagine the year ahead? What will be different? What will remain the same? And what kind of support will you need to thrive in the next year? Just imagining your future can provide healing in the present.
The third relationship we might use to enable healing is bein adam l’chaveiro, how can we heal as a community. The Psalmist writes, “Hinei mah tov umah naim shevet achim gam yachad – how good it is for us to all be together.” (Psalm 133) This year, we have been together, in this space and in too many others, because of painful moments. But there is a brilliance in how the Psalmist phrased this verse. It mentions how good it is for us to be together. It does not mention why we are gathered. It is not just good for us to gather for a happy or sad occasion – it’s just good to be together. As we have experienced this year, it is good for us to be together.
In some ways, this year was a wake-up call. A common theme I heard in the aftermath of both Pittsburgh and Poway was how much people realized they needed to be with community, and more importantly, the value of being in community.
And there is another wake-up call for us all. According to research, 73% of Jewish voters are uncomfortable with what society currently looks like, with most of their fears based on growing anti-Semitism. If that study is even partially true, and I believe that it is, it sets the stage for a foundational moment of disconnect. Professor Steven Windmueller of Hebrew Union College recently noted, “We have seen a trend of walking away from institutional Jewish life and a weakening of communal links. [The question, then, becomes] Are we living at a point of time where American Jews are thinking about and looking for community and reconnecting with institutional Jewish life because they are concerned that living in isolation that they lose a sense of community and wholeness at a time when people are feeling vulnerable?”
We, as a Beth Israel community, set our aspirations high as a caring community. You feel it in the hug we give at the oneg, just because we know someone is having a hard time. It’s in the myriad ways we galvanize our community to be there for a member who received a cancer diagnosis or for a family navigating a separation. It is in people showing up for shivas and baby namings and weddings. Even our campus is designed with community in mind – the design theme being “Gather the people.”
Each of these relationships — bein adam l’Makom, bein adam l’atzmo, and bein adam l’chaveiro — can be a lens we use to process and facilitate healing. Rabbi Aaron Panken z”l wrote, in words found in the Mishkan Hanefesh in our hands today: “Our actions help us live in such a way that when we suffer life’s darkest depredations, we will always have ways of coping with them. Our actions may not change the ultimate outcome one iota, but they alter our attitude, bolster our ability to withstand challenges, help us handle unavoidable misfortunes better, and see life’s value amid chaos and dismay.”
One of the details of this past year that went largely unnoticed is that we often referred to the synagogue in Pittsburgh as “Tree of Life.” But that’s not its full name – “Tree of Life – Or L’simchah Synagogue” Or L’simchah means “light to joy.” The synagogue’s tagline is “More light, more life.” Our light shines brighter when we are together and we help each other out of the darkness.
We like to say, “May this year and its troubles be behind us. May the new year be sweet.” We do say this and we do pray this. At the same time, we acknowledge that 5780, too, will include difficult moments — please, God, not like 5779. Still, we will need God; we will need our inner resources; and we will need one another to face whatever darkness befalls us in the new year. Then, may each of us, and all of us, experience more light and more life.
May this be a good year, a sweet year.
May this be a year of light, joy, and life.
May this be a year of more healing than hurt.