September 16, 2023
L’Chaim! – Judaism’s True Telegram (Rosh HaShanah 5784)
L’Chaim! – Judaism’s True Telegram
Rabbi Maurice A. Salth, Rosh HaShanah 5784
Dedicated to Rabbi Aaron David Panken Zecher Tzadik Livracha and Amala and Eric Levine
Listen to member Eric Levine read “The Good News.”
I am so grateful we are together this Rosh Hashanah morning.
Back in the time of telegrams, it is said every single Jewish telegram began with the same exact words: “Start worrying, details to follow.”
Yes, we Jews know of the tsuris, Yiddish, for all the woes that can befall a person, a family, a community, a people, and our world and the anxiety that can accompany these problems.
And yet, despite our experience with this all, our tradition has the chutzpah to charge us to live lives focused upon meaning and hope. If our tradition were to actually send a telegram or post on Instagram, it would read: “L’Chaim – Here’s to life and all the good ahead.”
Now don’t get me wrong. We Jews are not to ignore our worries or to wish them away. We honor and address what is troubling us. We recognize our scars, and we move forward.
This is easier said than done. It is common for many of us to worry, to give way to anxiety or unease, allowing our mind to dwell on difficulty. Research shows that in recent years 39 to 60 percent of adults in the United States worry every day. These numbers were higher during the peak of the pandemic, but 39 percent in “regular” times seems high to me.
There is no shortage of problems to be concerned about. I find myself worrying more than I would like. This summer, I was asked by a congregant for a Jewish blessing that would ward off troubles. I apologized and let him know there is no such blessing.
What I was able to tell him is this: central to the Jewish project are directives that can help us navigate through challenges and minimize our worry. These practices include addressing challenge head-on; working on our relationships and utilizing the power to choose our own perspective. All of these share the goal of helping us onward, l’chaim, to life.
We Address Challenges Head-On
Our tradition recognizes people often want to avoid reality; especially when the reality we are facing is scary, hard, and sometimes tragic. Many of us consciously and subconsciously want nothing to do with life’s difficulties, but they are inevitable. There is a reason Rabbi Harold Kushner entitled his best-selling book: “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” and not "If Bad Things Happen."
We Jews are urged to tackle our challenges head-on. When we do, we simultaneously address our worries.
People worry about death. A recent survey noted that people would much rather talk about their weight than death! That’s how much people don’t want to talk about death.
Judaism, though, encourages us to confront our mortality. When death does come, our rituals wisely focus on honoring the loved one who has died and helping the survivors find a way back into life. Public rituals such as funerals, shiva, and saying kaddish surround mourners with care and community. These rites provide ways for mourners to process their loss, remember their loved ones as a blessing, and begin to find a way forward.
In the spring of 1988, our members Connie and Harvey Krueger, now of blessed memory, were dealing with the unimaginable. Their thirty-two-year-old son, Peter, was dying due to AIDS-related illnesses. At the time, the virus was causing mass hysteria. Some hospitals wouldn’t even treat patients with signs of the disease. When Peter died in mid-April, his parents did not hesitate to fulfill one of Peter’s final wishes. Peter wanted his obituary to state his cause of death as “complications from AIDS.” His obituary in the New York Times was the first to ever do so.
There were many in our city who worried about speaking publicly of loved ones with AIDS. Not the Kruegers. Peter’s family mourned his tragic passing and celebrated his life in full voice at his funeral. Soon after, they established a clinic in his loving memory. The Peter Kreuger Clinic, to this day, focuses on training fellows and treating people affected by HIV and infectious diseases. Peter’s sister Liz is here today. I know through this clinic and countless other ways, you, Liz, and your siblings, continue to honor and remember your dear brother.
Death is just one of life’s hardships that we are encouraged to confront. We Jews are to process these issues individually, but not alone. We ask for help; from each other, from our community, clergy, therapists, doctors…you get the idea. As Rabbi Buchdahl reminded us in her address at Stanford’s Baccalaureate ceremony this past June, we are all interconnected.
I also want to highlight that our tradition urges us to figure things out during our lifetimes. While the idea of heaven is not absent in Judaism, it is not core to how we live our lives. We do not calculate a heavenly resolution to our problems; we do this calculus here on earth.
When we do the hard work of dealing head-on with our hardships, we give ourselves the gift of resolving our issues as best we can. This can reduce our worries and allow us to go more fully into tomorrow.
We Work On Our Relationships
We also worry about our relationships. Research shows that relationships are one of the most common reasons for worry.
A fixture of these holy days is the emphasis on improving our connections with one another. This priority is woven throughout our liturgy, including in our upcoming Yom Kippur congregational confession. What we do in here during services, is meant to be practice for what we will do out there.
When our relationships improve, so does the quality of our lives.
The Torah is filled with tales whose objective is to help us maintain healthy bonds with loved ones. One of the most compelling stories is of Jacob and his brother Esau. As children, they were always at odds with each other. In one chapter, a teenage Jacob requires a famished Esau to promise his entire inheritance to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of lentil soup. Years later, in another more horrifying scene, Jacob lies to his father, Isaac, tricking Isaac into giving Jacob a special blessing reserved for Esau. Esau is so angry that he threatens to kill his brother. Jacob flees to the safety of his uncle’s house in another land. Welcome to the Book of Genesis and our one big happy Jewish family!
Twenty years later, still estranged, Jacob is haunted by his selfishness, dishonesty, and fractured relationship with Esau. Jacob’s early attempts to reconcile with Esau fail miserably as he tries to bribe Esau into forgiving him. Esau lets Jacob know he’s not interested in the money and that he is manning an army to kill him.
The night before they are to meet again, Jacob wrestles until dawn with an unknown being. The next morning, practically at the last moment, Jacob abandons his attempts to shower Esau with gifts. Instead, in front of Jacob’s entire family and Esau’s army, Jacob sincerely apologizes by bowing low to the ground seven times. Upon seeing Jacob’s sincere regret for the very first time, Esau’s heart opens, the brothers embrace, and the feud ends.
Note that Jacob engages in a wrestling match before he finally evolves. Many frayed relationships heal only after one or both parties wrestle with their flaws and their mistakes. Change is hard, but we Jews believe it is possible.
The story of Jacob and Esau demonstrates the complexity of repairing a splintered relationship. Thankfully many of our relationships are strong. This is also a season to tell these family and friends how much we treasure them. This is a time to reconnect and recommit to spending time with people who are dear to us; to raise a glass with them and together say l’chaim.
These holy days are a good time to work on our relationships. We can apologize, we can ask for forgiveness, and we can forgive others. We can request feedback on something confusing, a friendship that has grown distant, or an awkward interaction. Talk about worrying, just the thought of such courageous conversations makes me toss and turn at night; yet I’m encouraged to still try.
Our tradition knows it takes two people to repair a connection. It is important to also remember the Rambam’s teaching: if you are not forgiven after demonstrating different behavior and apologizing three separate times, you are released from the obligation of resolving the conflict.
The bottom line is that where we can repair, we should strive to repair. When we work on our relationships, we can remove some of the worry that can paralyze us and go forward knowing we have made genuine attempts to fix what is broken.
We Utilize Our Power Of Perspective
We can also choose to change our perspective.
The doctor and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel taught, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
This teaching by Dr. Frankel encapsulates the final practice to reduce our worries that I want to explore today, the power to determine our own perspective.
Early in the Torah, we find the story of Joseph and his brothers.
Joseph is his father’s favorite. His brothers are jealous, and they sell him into slavery. Through dramatic twists over many years, Joseph becomes the second in command in ancient Egypt. His brothers, not recognizing him, come to him for help. Joseph recognizes them and is torn between taking revenge and reuniting with his family again. He tests them, and after they demonstrate they have changed, Joseph reveals himself. To his brothers’ surprise, he uses his status to protect them. Joseph makes a conscious choice to forgive his brothers and move ahead. The text even includes Joseph explaining in detail to his brothers how he has made peace with them and the past.
Millennia before Dr. Frankel, Joseph models for all of us that, no matter the circumstances, it is possible to choose our own attitude, our own way.
As a rabbi, I regularly witness members of this community who have altered their perspectives about their own lot. You may not realize it, but you are surrounded today by fellow congregants who have decided, despite significant challenges, to stay positive and step into each day. I am inspired by you.
This summer, I visited a remarkable couple who gave me permission to tell their story. Until recently, they were active at Central Synagogue, visiting children and grandchildren around the world and exploring its wonders.
With the sudden onset of illness, their lives have completely changed.
When I came to visit them in their new residence, they grabbed a book off their shelf and read a poem called “The Good News.”
Here is my favorite part:
“They don’t publish the good news.
The good news is published by us.
We have a special edition every moment, and we need you to read it.
The good news is that you are alive, and the linden tree is still there, standing firm in the harsh winter….
Leave behind the world of sorrow and preoccupation and get free.
The latest good news is that you can do it.”
Like Joseph in the Torah, like Dr. Frankel after the Holocaust, this couple has done something very difficult. They have every right to be consumed by the loss in their life, yet they have made the conscious choice to focus on their good news. And it serves them well.
After visiting them, it served me well too.
You will never find anywhere in the Torah the words: “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Never in the history of reducing worry has anyone stopped worrying by being told: “Don’t worry.”
Instead of “don’t worry,” our Jewish traditions and texts teach us to honor our worry but not to get lost in it.
Instead of “don’t worry,” we are to face our challenges head-on. We are charged to work on our relationships and harness our power of perspective.
When we engage in these actions, we provide ourselves with the opportunity of focusing on our blessings and on living lives of meaning and hope.
Our problems will not disappear.
Our worries will not vanish.
But we pray the good that comes from our courageous work will reduce our anxiety.
Let us pave the path forward into this new Jewish year and beyond.
Let us awaken to each new day and say l’chaim!
 Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl, Beacon Press Books, Boston, MA, 1959, p. 68
 Genesis, Chapters 37-50
 Call Me By My True Names, Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press, Berkeley, CA, 1999 p. 227