Theme: Love / Family / Gratitude / Relationships

Sermon on gratitude – Fall 2019

Last April, we had an amazing congregational Jewish trip to Montreal – some of you were there!  What made it so meaningful to me were two things– the food and the people.
Montreal!!  With its reputation for the best bagels and smoked meat, many of us immediately think about food when talking about Montreal. Well, we certainly ate our way through the city.  Starting with a wonderful shabbat dinner provided by Temple Emmanuel Beth Sholom, the only reform synagogue in the city.  About a dozen shul members joined us for a delicious meal catered by a middle eastern kosher restaurant with mouth-watering falafel and hummus. The next morning, we embarked on a walking tour of Jewish Montreal which included an egg cream at Wilensky’s which hasn’t changed at all since Mordecai Richler hung out there as a child.  We had a bagel from St. Viator bakery, and a smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s and I can still taste the brine of that delicious pickle.

But it was the people that made it so fun, a diverse mix open to new experiences and making memories together.  In group trips, you spend a lot of time together, eating, walking, sharing taxis, and seeing the sights.  What made the trip so memorable, was how well we all got along and delighted in each other’s company.  On Saturday night, after dinner I wanted to have a havdalah ceremony but it was raining, Pouring. So my plan for an outdoor venue fell through. Undeterred, all 12 of us huddled in a little entryway on a narrow cobblestone street in old Montreal.  We lit the candle and sang the blessings and then each person shared their favorite moment of our trip. Everyone appreciate taking the time to stop and acknowledge how much fun we were having and all were grateful to be on the trip.

I wish we could all take more time to feel and express gratitude. Since Oprah Winfrey introduced gratitude journals on her television show, giving thanks has become trendy, a way to feel better about ourselves and is recognized as having great value in society at large. Esteemed neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has written, Gratitude, and there are also books you can check out, called, Everyday Gratitude, and The Gratitude Diaries. In his latest book, “Thanks a Thousand,” AJ  Jacobs writes, “gratitude teaches you to calmly reason with your irrational inner grouch”. It can lift depression, help you sleep, improve your diet and make you more likely to exercise.  Heart patients recovered more quickly and it can make you kinder to strangers and it predicts happiness in relationships.

In his new book, Jacobs embarks on a quest to thank every single person who had a role (even a tiny one) in making his morning cup of coffee possible. He thanks the barista, the farmer, the truck driver who transported the coffee beans, the folks who built the road for the truck, the people who painted yellow lines on the road so that the truck didn’t crash. In short, a whole lot of people.

In one chapter he talks about a frustrating morning.  It took him an extra 3 minutes to get his contact lenses in, then he couldn’t find the rip top to his water bottle, and as he got to the bottom of the stairs to the subway station, the C train was just pulling away.  So when everything went wrong, he had to think about what went right.  He didn’t fall down the stairs and break his leg, the elevator worked and didn’t plummet to the basement, his fare card had enough money so he went right through the turnstile.  Sure he missed the train, but what about the many times he strolled right onto a train as the doors opened the second he got to the platform?
Of course, we all remember the situations that enrage us, not the ones where things go smoothly. It’s how we are wired.  If you get 99 compliments and 1 insult, you remember the insult.  Thinking back over my week, and my morning routine, the moments that stick out are the ones when I couldn’t get out of the house in good time, for one reason or another. Still, most mornings, everything goes smoothly. I ought to be grateful for the positive moments instead of feeling frustrated when I’m delayed.

But is gratitude itself a Jewish emotion?  I think, for the most part, we might consider guilt a stronger Jewish emotion – along with obligation.  When God gave us the 10 commandments, we were not commanded to appreciate them and say thank you.  Quite the contrary. We were told to accept and follow them, often at the risk of punishment. This was our part of the covenant.  God took us from slavery to freedom and gave us a homeland.  In return for watching over us and giving us laws to live by, we would acknowledge god and follow the mitzvot. No questions asked.  It’s hard to find a sense of gratitude and thankfulness in the Tanach.
Author A.J. Jacobs wrote, “To me anxiety, guilt, resentment, constant nervousness about diseases like sciatica and bursitis — those were Jewish emotions, But gratitude? Not so much.”  this he gleaned from a steady diet of Woody Allen movies, Neil Simon plays and Philip Roth novels.
We are, after all, descendants of Hebrews who wandered the desert for 40 years, whining about the constant lack of amenities.  It’s far easier to complain about being thirsty and hungry and frightened of enemies, lurking in the shadows, than it is to say,  thank you.

But consider this…Judaism offers an array of rituals, blessings and teachings to guide us towards appreciation.  Admittedly, rabbis are masters at taking any positive trait and claiming it’s link to Judaism. Even so, I believe there is compelling evidence.  First of all, where do you think the word, Jew, comes from?  It goes back to the tribe of Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob.  Judah’s name in Hebrew is Yehudah, from which you can find the root to the word Hodaha or “thanksgiving.” Judah’s mom, Leah, gave him that name, to express her thanks to God. So, the name of our people, Jews, means, thank you.  “To be Jewish is to be thankful,” says Josh Franklin, rabbi of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons.

Furthermore, we can look at the bundle of thankfulness prayers Jews are required to say daily.  They are scattered on every page of our prayerbook.  The first words of the first morning prayer – Modeh Ani Lefanecha translate to, “I offer thanks to you”.  This is what we are supposed to say when we first wake up in the morning.  The grammar is unusual as it puts the word thank you before “me” instead of the usual, “I thank you”.  it’s a subtle reminder that before we think of ourselves, we should first say thank you to God.

I was introducing this concept to the group of 6 men who are going on the JWRP trip to Israel in November and we all thought it make a lot of sense.  David Benjamin even said he was going to try doing it for 30 days during the month of October to see if it sticks as a habit.  Maybe we could all try this month.  Say thank you every morning right when you wake up for whatever you are grateful for.

The Modeh Ani prayer of thankfulness is just the opening prayer. The rest of our daily services follow with many more. We are supposed to say 100 thank you blessings a day and some of them are delightfully, if oddly, specific.

There is a prayer for seeing a volcano, Baruch atta Ado-noy Elo-hai-nu melech ha’olam shekocho ugevurato malei olam.
Translation: Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, whose power and might fill the world.

Another thanking god for enjoying a delightful fragrance: blessed are you god who creates various kinds of spices.

One for seeing a majestic mountain (for the first time in thirty days): . . .blessed are you god, Who re-enacts the work of creation.

There’s a prayer of thanks you can say when you see someone who is nearsighted. A prayer of thanks when food resembles its ingredients, and another when it doesn’t. There’s even a prayer of thankfulness for the concept of thankfulness. Very meta.
Perhaps the most famous Jewish anecdote about gratitude is the tale of the Jewish farmer in the shtetl, it could always be worse:

The farmer goes to the rabbi and complains that his house is too small. The man can’t stand all the noise of his screaming kids and his wife’s clinking of pots and pans. So the rabbi tells the man to bring chickens to live in the house with him.
The man is baffled, but follows this advice. The next day, the man goes back to the rabbi to complain that the situation has only deteriorated. The rabbi tells him to bring a goat under his roof. Then a cow. Then a rooster.  Then an ox. The man reports that things are getting worse and worse.

Finally, the rabbi tells the man to return all the animals to the yard. The man does so. The next day, the man returns to the rabbi and reports, “Rabbi life is great. I’m happy, relaxed and had the best night’s sleep ever, thank you.”

The point of the story, of course, is that we should focus on the things we have instead of those things we want. And don’t forget, things could always be worse.

AJ Jacobs says there are two sides to this story to consider.  On the one hand, we should appreciate the dangers of what psychologists, call the “deficit mindset.” This is the worldview that says, “I will only be happy when X happens.” If I only had a nicer car, I would be happier driving instead of wanting those other cars I see from my windshield.  If only my house was a little bigger there would be more room for everyone, and I’d be so much happier.  If only my mark on this test was as good as that kid who seems much happier with his A.  The problem is, when you get X, it will likely be replaced by Y, which will be replaced by Z. The treadmill is relentless.

On the other hand, does the story encourage complacency and acceptance of circumstances that might be changed? Are we not supposed to find a better way if we are not happy, rather than just accept what we have?  The jewish farmer is back in his original house with all the fighting and noise and mayhem.  Maybe the man could have found a third way. Maybe the rabbi should have told the farmer to start an Uber for Plows so that he could make enough money to buy a bigger, quieter house.  Maybe it’s time for some of the older children to move out on their own and stop mooching off their parents and grow up.

It’s a tricky balance: trying to be grateful while not blindly accepting the status quo. In Pirke Avot, chapter 4, the ancient collection of Jewish wisdom: Rabbi Ben Zoma rhetorically asks, “Who is rich? Mi hoo asheer?  The answer: Those who rejoice in their own portion.” hasameach be’chelko So be thankful for what you have.  But in the very same sentence it adds,–you shall enjoy the fruit of your labours; you shall be happy and you shall prosper.  In other words, you also have a role to play in working and enjoying what you have and you shall be more prosperous.
The final theme I’ve noticed in Jewish gratitude, is the importance of giving credit where credit is due. And some of that credit goes to the spirit in the sky!

Listen to this passage from Deuteronomy– “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.… Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’”
We live in a world where many of us don’t believe in God, or don’t believe God gave us anything. There is a tendency to think we’ve earned everything ourselves.  The Jewish answer, however, is that god created the world and giving thanks to the creator is wise.
But for the agnostics in the room, for whom the ‘God-is-responsible’ part doesn’t resonate, perhaps focus on the people who helped make something possible.
Think about your morning cup of coffee, for instance, or your bowl of cereal, or your delicious bagel with a shmeer.  Consider just how many dozens of other humans made these products possible, from the pest control worker at the coffee warehouse, to the miners in Chile who got the copper for the wiring of the toaster, to the farmer harvesting and transporting the wheat and corn to the Kellogg’s factory to be made into delicious, sugar coated, bite sized pieces falling into your bowl.

Once again, our Jewish sages are way ahead of us, as second-century scholar, Simeon Ben Zoma, wrote in the Talmud, “How much labor must Adam and Eve have expended before they obtained a garment to wear? He sheared and washed the wool, combed and spun it, wove, and after that he obtained a garment to wear.”

Let’s compare this huge effort to our modern lives today. We get up in the morning and our clothes are ready, our cereal is in boxes, the toaster is on the counter.  And if our refrigerator and cupboards are bare, we have uber eats, ready to bring what we need to our door.
We don’t always want to hear this, but we do need a reminder from time to time– our world was built upon those who came before us.  President Barack Obama once gave a speech telling business owners, “You didn’t build this yourself.” His words were controversial, since they questioned America’s pride for individual achievement. Perhaps, he could have made his point more tactfully, but I agree with the gist of his statement, that these businesses were built on the backs of previous ones.

I find Remembrance Day to be quite moving, when we publicly thank those who offered their lives in the name of freedom and service for our country. It’s even more gratifying to thank living veterans who served overseas as peacekeepers to make our world a better place.  We wouldn’t enjoy freedom and peace without those who fought for it, especially in the past century.  There is a new organization in Israel simply called “thank Israeli soldiers”.  That is their whole madate, to thank soldiers by sending them care packages and watching out for lone soldiers.  Its simple but powerful, thank you, for keeping our homeland safe.

We Canadians do a fair bit of thanking. We are known for our good manners around the world. Not a bad reputation.  According to the Huffington Post, on a recent survey, Canadians are twice as likely to say, ‘thank you’, than ‘I’m sorry’. And 60% of us say this with meaning and sincerity.

The boomer generation is more likely to say “you’re welcome,” whereas millennials say, “no problem.” Both are expressions of gratitude and stereotypes to wear with pride.

Gratitude – a very strong Jewish emotion, beginning with our sages and writings from thousands of years ago, and continued over generations through prayers and daily activities.  Our ancestors knew it back then and it bears reminding today–thank those around you all the time.

Not just your friends but family, and even strangers you encounter throughout the day.

And give thanks to God, who brought us here and created this world.  Wake up each morning with a sense of gratitude by saying, Modeh Ani and think of something you are grateful for.  Then, don’t forget to thank yourselves and remember to focus on the things we have instead of those things we want. Remember–things could always get worse.
Thank you for listening to me today.
Shana tova!

High holidays sermon  – Love – Fall 2019

Who can remember falling in love for the first time?  For me it was at summer camp.  Or at least I thought it was love.  Summer lovin.  I was 15 at camp solelim and I liked a girl.  Her name was Rachel and it meant everything if she felt the same way.  I wasn’t sure what to say or express my feelings so I think I tagged her during a nighttime game of hide and seek. That seemed to do the trick.  We were going steady and our relationship lasted about 6 days and it was awesome.
Why were so emotions so important at that age?  I other women who loved me including my mom and sister but they had no choice, I was a son and brother.   But no other women had validated a love for me that was independent of blood lines until that summer when I experienced the incredible feeling of liking someone and then having them reciprocate. What a summer.  Of course the second camp ended so did the relationship (don’t worry Cheryl).  But what a rush, I held onto that feeling of love for months.

By the next summer I brimmed with confidence.  Figured I got this love thing worked out, knew it wouldn’t be a problem to find a girlfriend again.  Boy was I wrong.  The exact opposite thing happened.  I liked a girl and she did not like me back, and there was nothing I could do to change her mind.  She told me so, pretty much in those exact words.  “I don’t like you”.  man was I crushed.  Heartbroken.  I remember walking around in a daze that night, holding back tears.  Why didn’t she like me.  I’m nice.  Why was I so emotional?  I had just met her 3 days ago, and still had a whole summer ahead of me but it seemed like nothing would go right that summer without this one girl liking me.

Beginning in those early teenage years, there is a point where we being to understand that we have emotional connections to people beyond our family.  Our search for love begins, with its many up and downs.

And it doesn’t stop at the end of the teen years, those feelings of love and passion consume us for the rest of our lives.  The feeling of wanting to love someone deeply and of course, wanting that person to love us back with equal amounts of affection and intensity.  Why do we crave this emotion? its an inherent part of our being, the need to have people like us.  And being loved makes us feel worthy.

How many of us use Instagram.  For those who don’t it’s a social media platform where you post pictures or videos of yourself. When you post a picture and people like it, there used to be a counter that kept track of how many “likes” you got.  But a few months ago Instagram experimented with Canada, (we are the social media guinea pig) and eliminated that counter.
Tom Power on Q – CBC was talking about Instagrams decision on air recently, explaining how getting a lot of likes is a rush, its validation, its an element of knowing people like you.  Buzzfeed online columnist Elamin Abdelmahmoud said Instagrams move actually makes us sadder and lonelier because we have no way of validating our identities.  On the other hand he believes the elimination of the counter forces us to focus on the quality of our content, not just how it compares to others.  But it Instagrams controversial decision sheds light on how social media feeds the craving to be liked, how we need to be connected to people and want intimate connections.

This need for affection arises because it makes us feel secure and wanted by others. Parents fulfill their children’s need for affection by helping them grow into adults, offering them advice when they encounter crises, and providing a roof over their head. In a loving couple, each fulfills the need for affection by showing you how much he or she needs you in their life. Affection is the proverbial glue that holds our different relationships together.

Giving and receiving affection means understanding our own emotional boundaries, how far we are willing to go out on a limb and put ourselves at risk for someone else. It means taking a chance on being hurt.  In order to fulfill our need for affection we must open our minds and our hearts to people, to commitment.

So what is the secret to love? to finding intimacy? to satisfy your craving to be liked.  One answer might sound counter-intuitive.  Instead of seeking love, we should let love seek us.  What I mean is we need to be better listeners.  Listening is a disappearing art these days.  Maybe its because we have so many devices in our hands and they are taking our attention away from the people in front of us.  Or perhaps its our rush to solve peoples problems and give advice, we forget to listen. When we care more about talking and interrupting, we’re not really listening.

My colleague, Rabbi Beau Shapiro serves a huge 2500 family congregation in Los Angeles and has to do a lot of talking, but last summer he had jaw surgery and was wired shut for 6 weeks.  No talking.  He was forced to listen without giving advice or commentary – pretty hard for a Rabbi.  He said, “The effort and discomfort of trying to talk was so frustrating that I finally succumbed to my temporary reality and stopped trying. A funny thing happened. I noticed that because I could not speak, I wasn’t thinking about my reply so I was free to be present, to listen—to really listen. And I realized how often in the past I thought I was listening, when I really wasn’t.”

Lets consider this within the context of Jewish prayer.  Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. LISTEN, Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. It does not say speak Israel, [proclaim that] Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. It commands us to listen. In the most important commandment Jews have, we are commanded to listen—not talk.

To understand the importance of listening in everyday life, we can turn to Malcom Gladwell’s esteemed book, Blink.  Gladwell reveals the surprising fact that the risk of being sued for medical malpractice has very little to do with how many mistakes a doctor makes. Analyses of malpractice lawsuits show that there are highly skilled doctors who get sued a lot and doctors who make lots of mistakes and never get sued

Generally the stats show that patients  don’t file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care. Patients file lawsuits because they feel they got bad medical care and no one listened to them.  If the doctor took an extra three minutes and listened to them, that makes the difference getting sued or not.   The outcomes were irrelevant. At the end of the day, we all want to be heard.
Love begins by listening.  Listen to yourself first to figure out what it is that you want.  what are you looking for in a partner?  what do you want to get out of a relationship?  And then, when looking for love, listen carefully.  Be fully present.  Share yourself but don’t interrupt or overlap.  That is the first step of love, to finding intimacy, to connecting to other people in a meaningful way.

The other secret about love, is believing you are worthy of it.  Of course we seek love, but we must believe we deserve this emotion.  Researcher and storyteller, Brene Brown, in her groundbreaking work on the power of vulnerability, tells us there are two kinds of people: those who believe they are worthy of love and those who believe they aren’t. According to Brown, those who believe they are worthy of love are “wholehearted.” Those who believe they are aren’t-  extend it to other parts of life, they are not beautiful enough, not smart enough, not creative enough, not patient enough.

When we come to shul on the high holydays, love in not the first word that comes to mind.  We come for Teshuvah, to be judged by God.  And yes, there’s plenty of judging and reflecting going on. But as Rabbi Susan Leider writes, we also need to cultivate an open heart so that we identify and access our loved and loving selves. That’s also teshuvah. Teshuvah prods us to see ourselves as worthy of being loved, worthy of doing good. On the holidays we pray Shma Koleinu – hear our voices.  We are yearning for God to hear us.  But we need to open up and start.  You can create a space where the beloved can be found in your life.  That is why we seek the beloved inside – because it dwells in every human being.  There is a special blessing that is said for a bar or bat mitzvah child that goes, “May he or she be a person who is both loving and beloved–
להיות בן אדם אהוב ואוהב

The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his students where God is found. His students quoted the psalms saying, “God fills all the world with glory.” The rebbe shook his head and says, “No, I asked where is God to be found, not where God is.” They were confused, saying to the rebbe, “We just said God is everywhere.” The rebbe smiled and said, “No, God is found in the place that you open up your hearts and let God in.”

Think back on your life, choose a moment when you felt truly cared for, seen in your worthiness, your infinite potential and goodness. In this moment, there were no conditions of who you were, or who you were supposed to be. It could be when a kind stranger opened a door for you. It could be a memory with a beloved teacher or friend. It does not have to be “the perfect person,” who loved you “unconditionally.” You can even choose a moment with a pet who cared for you. You could choose a place when you felt this love and care. Recall this moment, hold it in your heart and in your mind. Being able to recall when we felt loved and cared for, helps us be more loving towards others.

The other secret to love – don’t look for someone to make you happy.  Look for someone you can make happy.  We all want to be loved, it’s a natural feeling.  And it can be very strong.  From those first moments as a teenager when it felt like the entire universe wouldn’t go on without someone liking you back.  Yet sometimes as we get older it seems the love isn’t as strong, its harder to find, or harder to feel as if your is being reciprocated.  I think the love is always there, sometimes we need to discover the ways to love.  To work hard to make someone else happy.  because love can be heartbreaking, its not always easy.  So many emotions compete for our love.

When God has Moses bring the people out of Egypt, they stop at Mount Sinai where God will give them the 10 commandments.  After all God had done, bringing the plagues, taking them out of slavery, splitting the sea and drowning pharaoh’s army, what do the people do?  They have no patience to wait and worship the golden calf.  God is furious and tells Moses he will kill them all, but Moses says no, you love this people and they love you.  They are impatient, they are frustrating, they complain, but deep down you love them and they love you.  so you have to forgive them, not just this time but probably many more times.  And they will often times love and follow your ways and sometimes they won’t but the love must stay strong.  And god listens to Moses and continues to love us, through it all, forever.

So love comes through listening first and foremost.  not just hearing someone so you can respond, or offer advice or make a point, but really listening and allowing others in.  This openeness creates intimacy, letting love spark and grow, or rekindle a love that is dormant.  Give love by making those around you happy.  And know that you deserve love.  you have a lot of love inside to give and when you love yourself you extend this feeling outward to others and likely who will likely reciprocate.  Remember you are amazing, a gift from God who loves you and you are always worthy of more love in this sweet year ahead.

Rosh Hashana 2017 – “And Hannah Wept”

On this day, Rosh Hashana, one of the holiest days of the year, we read a very simple story for our Haftorah from the book of Samuel, the story of Hannah.

Hannah was an ordinary woman, married to Elkhana, who also had another wife named Peninah.  Peninah had children, but Hannah was barren.  She was devastated that she was unable to conceive a baby and her sister teased her mercilessly.  Year after year, Hannah would go with her sister and husband to pray at the altar at Shiloh and offer sacrifices to God, but to no avail.  She was so upset she would weep and could not eat.  Her husband was powerless to help her and could only ask, “why do you weep, aren’t I as good to you as ten sons”?  But God refused to open her womb.

This Haftorah portion never really hit home with me, until my wife Cheryl and I tried to get pregnant.   We were married 6 years ago, in the Summer of 1999.  We had met as counselors at Camp Shalom here near Gravenhurst, but who would have predicted that a summer romance would lead to marriage!  We got married in Toronto, our home town, moved to Boston to attend Graduate school and finally settled in New York City.

There I began my studies to become a Rabbi.  After 3 years of marriage, feeling secure in our apartment and a steady income, we were ready to get pregnant.  It seemed like the perfect time to bring a child into the world.  My sister had just had a baby and I assumed our parents wouldn’t be too upset with more grandchildren.  But after months and months of trying, we couldn’t have the child we so desperately wanted.  When Rosh Hashana came around that year, in the fall of 2002, Cheryl and I truly understood Hannah’s tears.

Like Hannah we cried out, “why can’t we have a baby”????
Our whole life had been about making the right decisions – which College to go to, which career to choose, when to get married, where to live.  We made the choices that determined out fate.  Suddenly, when it mattered the most, we couldn’t make the choice we wanted.
Cheryl especially understood why Hannah wept, could not eat, and prayed alone silently.  Both wanted a child urgently and nothing anyone said could help.  This is what is expected of every Jewish family, what God expects.

And we couldn’t deliver.

I began to question everything.  I’m a good person, I try and do what’s right, how come I can’t get what I want.  Am I being punished?

As a couple we spent years trying to avoid pregnancy, relying on birth control.  Now when we wanted a child, we had no control.

Everyone else seems to have babies, they are all around.  Why not us?
I think everyone can relate to a time in their life when they suddenly lost control.  When they realized that they weren’t in the drivers seat.  You can plan all you want but things happen beyond your control.  And it hurts even more when you feel that you are letting others down.  When everyone expected you to do something and you couldn’t.  When God wanted you to behave in a certain way and you didn’t.  Often at these times we turn inward and suffer alone.
Cheryl and I suffered in silence.  We didn’t know where to turn.  We were embarrassed that we couldn’t conceive and didn’t want anyone else to know.  We hid it from everyone, parents, siblings and best friends, they had no idea what we were going through.

After a year and a half, we finally went to a doctor and were diagnosed as infertile.  Us, infertile.  We were both in out twenties, young, good-looking, healthy, we couldn’t believe it.  Our doctor gave us strategies to find the best times to try, you can imagine how romantic that was.  Our life became consumed with tests, measurements, counting days, waiting, hoping, crying.
What else could we do?  Well, I’m a Rabbi so of course, I looked at the Bible.  As you know, all our matriarchs suffered from the stigma of infertility – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and of course Hannah.  Because of them, our earliest sources suggest traditions and rituals to affect conception.

Some women place the stem of the Etrog from Sukkot under their pillow while they sleep, because it is considered a sign of fertility.  Whenever a baby boy or girl is named, they are placed on Elijah’s chair, to signify that the messiah could be anyone, even that child.  After the baby is in the chair, it becomes infused with special powers.  Women of childbearing years who sit in the chair, will apparently conceive within the year.  I also read of women going to graves to let the spirit of ancient Rabbi’s help them.  The gravesite of Rebbe Schneerson in Queens, is filled with women praying for children.  But for the most part, there is an age old tradition when you don’t know where to turn.  Prayer.

Hannah walked alone to altar, and kneeled before it.  She prayed, crying and whispered to God her deepest hopes and dreams.  While her lips moved furiously, she uttered no sounds.  This was unusual, for in those days prayers were spoken aloud.  The priest at the altar thought she was drunk and wanted to throw her out of the Temple.  But she said,  “Lo adoni, Isha K’shat ruach anochi” –
no my lord, I am a very unhappy woman, but I have not drunk wine nor other strong drink.  I have been pouring my heart out to the Lord.  Do not take me for a worthless woman, I have only been speaking all this time out of my great anguish and distress”.  The priest then said, “go in peace and may God grant you what you ask”.

What an incredible example of courage.  But yet she still did not publicly admit what she was really praying for.  I think she whispered her prayers because she was embarrassed to be asking for a child, she didn’t want anyone to know she was failing at conceiving.

This is the most natural feeling, to hide deep down our secrets and fears.  I admit that I too had trouble telling others.  I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me, or keep asking me about it.  I didn’t want to talk about it.  I had trouble when other people got pregnant because I could only selfishly think of my own pain and failure.  It was so hard when our parents asked when they would become grandparents, we wanted to just hide.

Cheryl and I continued to hope and pray that one day all the treatments at the fertility clinic would work.  We were amazed at how many people filled the office each day waiting for their turn with the doctor.  So much pain and so much silence in the room.  No one talked to anyone else, they sat quietly alone.  If they came with a partner, they would whisper to each other, not wanting others to know why there were there, afraid to admit it, unable to look people in the eye.

What made it even harder for us is that Judaism seems to be obsessed with children.  The very first commandment is pru u’rvu, be fruitful and multiply.  Have children and give them a Jewish education.  So many holidays revolve around activities for youngsters.  The focus on Passover, is to ask the children the four questions – mah nishtaha halailah hazeh, and then answer them.

Children dominate the thoughts of synagogues, religious school, youth group.  Of course we focus on the next generation,and our kids are the future-  but this makes the barren couple even more upset, when children are around all the time and they can’t have one.

There were two things that kept us strong.  First, was we had each other, to whom we could turn for strength and comfort, we went through it together.  We tried to be as happy as we could for our friends and siblings who had children.  We were patient, hoping it would happen for us some day.

Secondly, we finally told our parents.  They were pillars of strength when we needed it the most.  They struggled as much as we did knowing how much it meant to have kids.  That’s what family is for so you don’t have to suffer alone.

People kept asking us, “When are you going to start a family? While people meant well, that question really hurt.  We now try to avoid asking others when they were going to have kids, because they might be struggling with the same issues.  As people are having children later in life after College and careers, it’s become a more prevalent problem.

Infertility made me realize how powerless we are to stop the difficult parts of life –  disease and devastation and weather patterns and illness.   All we can do is lean on the people around us.   Go to your friends and tell them you’re hurting.  Let out the pain and spread it around.  If others offer to help by taking you out for a night of fun to forget all your problems, let them, it’s a mitzvah.  Find the things in life you truly love and cherish – read a great book, see a great movie, take a vacation.  When we let the community in, we can find healing in each other.

Whenever we worship together, there always comes a time in the service for the misheberach prayer for those who are sick.  How come it is so easy to call out other people’s names, to wish them a speedy healing and God’s special blessing. But no one calls out their own name.
This is where our synagogue community comes in.   We need to be there for each other.  We need an organized group of people, ready to visit someone in the hospital, send care packages to shut-ins, or celebrate with newlyweds.  That is what our Jewish community is all about, support, care and love when we need it the most.

Cheryl and I are the lucky ones.  After months of trying, we did conceive our miracle baby Jacob, who was born in June of 2004.  Our doctor strongly recommended having another right and so we went through in-vitro fertilization and had our second miracle Talia, who was born in February of 2006.  At that point we thought we were out of miracles, but then wonder of wonders, last September Cheryl was late.  We didn’t think it was medically possible but surprise, here comes Alexa.  We look at our family and marvel how truly blessed and lucky we are to even have any kids at all, and to have 3 healthy, vivacious children, its simply incredible.

We know how fortunate we are.  There are so many others who suffer in silence through miscarriage or stillborn or continuous fertility treatments that are unsuccessful.  Many turn to other paths for parenthood like adoption and are still waiting.  It is a challenging time to want something so badly and yet cannot have it.

Today, as we celebrate the new year, look at the family around you.  If you have children, give them all the love in the world, because they are truly a miracle.  Tell your parents, your siblings, you love them.  Give your family members a kiss and tell them you love them every day.  As James Taylor said, when you’re down and troubled, just call your name aloud.  If only Hannah were a Rabbi today, she could tell us all what she was going through.  I have put myself in this sermon today because I want to give you permission to let out your secret pain and suffering so that we can be with you and lead you towards healing and comfort.

El Malei Rachamim, god full of grace and caring.  We seek your face in our time of darkness.  Shine your light of love and compassion upon us.  Open before us the gates of prayers and tears, for we come before you laden with both.

Hear our plea for you alone hold the key to life.  Just as you heard the cry of our ancestors, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Hannah, so may you remember us.  Do not hide your face from us, merciful one.  We ask for your help God, we ask for hope.  Amen.