A Love Drought — Rosh Hashanah 2021 / 5782

We are pleased to share Rabbi Ari Isenberg’s sermon from Rosh Hashanah Day 1:


If you haven’t seen the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri starring Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson, I highly recommend watching it. In the movie, Woody Harrelson plays the town’s beloved sheriff who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. His Deputy — played by Sam Rockwell — is portrayed as a character lacking empathy and seems utterly indifferent and uninterested in doing his police work well and serving the community properly.

As he nears his death, the sheriff — Woody Harrelson — writes a few goodbye letters. There’s a fabulous scene depicting Rockwell’s character — the unsympathetic deputy — opening the letter addressed to him. We, the audience, watch as Harrelson’s voice narrates the letter that Rockwell reads. Written in the letter is the following:

“There’s something I wanted to say to you that I never really said when I was alive. I think you’ve got the makings of being a really good cop, and you know why? Because, deep down, you’re a decent man. 

I know you don’t think I think that, but I do.  I do think you’re too angry though, and as long as you hold on to so much hate, then I don’t think you’re ever going to become what I know you want to become – a detective.  Cause you know what you need to become a detective?  And I know you’re gonna wince when I say this, but what you need to become a detective is Love.

Because through love comes calm, and through calm comes thought.  You need more love in your life, for the people you serve, for yourself, even for those you will investigate.”

As the scene played out, I recall jumping up from the sofa to get a pen and paper, exclaiming, “This is my Rosh Hashanah sermon!” Its message is incredibly powerful. It might be cliché to say “all you need is love”, but it’s not cliché to say that love is needed, that love is a necessary part of the success of a family, a community, and of humanity.

The very piece of Torah we read on Rosh Hashanah offers us a powerful lesson about the need for expanded love and empathy in our lives, in our society. It is the story of Abraham’s casting out of his son, Ishmael, and concubine, Hagar. By the time Isaac was born, Abraham already had thirteen years to forge a relationship with Ishmael. Sarah, seeing this strong bond between Abraham and Ishmael, worried that Abraham would make Ishmael as much his heir as Isaac. Driven by her fears, she insisted that Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael.

Before he banishes them, God intervenes and tells Abraham, “Shema b’kolah” — listen to Sarah’s voice. On the surface, we understand God’s intervention as reinforcing Abraham’s decision to banish Hagar and Ishmael.

But through a feminist reading I once learned, God is actually just trying to get Abraham to listen to Sarah’s underlying concerns; if Abraham could really hear, really listen to Sarah’s fear, then there might have been no need to eject Hagar and Ishmael after all.

What Sarah sought was an empathic Abraham; an Abraham with expanded love, a willingness to just sit there and listen to her narrative, her perspective, her concerns and fears. Abraham’s inability to do that led to the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, an act of questionable integrity and — plainly — lacking in humanity.

Think about it in these terms. How many of you have at least two children? Now, recall the moment you brought your second child home from the hospital for the first time to meet your eldest child. It’s common for the older sibling to say, “I don’t want this sibling. Bring him back to the hospital.”

But none of us actually heed the request of the older sibling and get rid of our second child. Of course not. What we do is listen, hopefully. We listen to our older child and hear their fears, acknowledging the pain and jealousy that are often behind their words. By showing that our love is expanded to now include both children, we often allay the older sibling’s fears.

Three years ago, I participated in a Rabbinic Mission to Israel sponsored by AIPAC’s Education Foundation. We spent some time at the Galilee Medical Center up in Nahariyah. This hospital has been in the spotlight ever since it went public confirming that — in coordination with the Israeli Defense Forces — the hospital receives hundreds of wounded Syrians each year.

As it would with an Israeli citizen, the hospital treats their wounds, cares for them, and then sends them on their way. The full extent of hospital resources — including social workers, therapists, surgeons of all specialties – are available for these Syrians. It’s of no consequence if the patients are innocent Syrian civilians, rebel fighters, Iranian proxy fighters, or part of the Assad Regime. There are no questions asked.

That this humanitarian effort occurs at the Galilee Medical Center is almost amusingly paradoxical, since the Galilee Medical Center is also home to Israel’s most extensive underground hospital. If Hezballah fighters launch an assault upon Israel’s north, wounded Israelis will be sent to Galilee Medical Center’s underground hospital.  If those same Hezballah fighters are injured in the battles raging in Syria, and somehow make it to the Israeli border for help, they are brought to the exact same location.

Dr. Masad Barhoum is the General Director of the hospital. We spent time with him and asked him why the hospital goes to such lengths in this humanitarian effort. He responded with the hospital’s new motto in Hebrew:

Adam l’adam, adam.
A person to a person, is a person. Or, a person to another person, treat as a person.

Imbedded in the hospital’s motto are echoes of Emmanuel Levinas, the French Jewish philosopher, who taught that when we see the “visage” of the Other, we are called to a level of ethical responsibility to that other person.

In responding to that call, we become fully human. That is, attaining a level of ethical responsibility to the Other is essential to a complete sense of our own humanity.

The assurances we make our children and exceptional cases like the Galilee Medical Center are wonderful, but — overall — love and empathy are trending down in society these days. They have become rare commodities. We seem to be far more into oppositional behavior, and it plays out in scary ways.

On Facebook and Twitter, rather than respectfully and generously listen to each other’s narratives and perspectives, we are quick to unfriend someone whose views are at odds with ours.  “Enemies!”, “Lost causes”, we refer to them.

We typically tune-in to the news sources that best reflect and reinforce our worldview. We aim to delegitimize perspectives we oppose, rather than disagree respectfully. Last year on Thanksgiving, The New York Times posted tips on how to avoid talking politics so that relatives could get along while sitting around the dinner table.

The same is true in Israel. I hear from many Israelis who lament the days when they could more readily interact with Palestinians. The residents of Kibbutz Kfar Aza recall life before the first Intifada. On Saturdays, the kibbutzniks would cross into Gaza and head to the beach, where they’d sunbathe alongside their Arab Palestinian neighbors. Their histories and narratives were different, even contradictory; but they possessed a small dose of empathy, this bridge-building force affording them the ability to see the humanity in the other. Today, though, the walls are up, the arson balloons are landing on Kibbutz Kfar Aza, and a sense that this is now a zero-sum game with no turning back permeates the atmosphere.

In trying to figure out why we seem incapable of reaching out to the other, I turned to an obvious source for an answer: Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers may very well have the answer to help shift us away from hate, away from anger, and a path — a bridge really — toward love. When asked to define love, Mr. Rogers called it an active noun like “struggle,” not a perfect state. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.

By far the most important aspect of Rogers’ philosophy is the idea that you have to work to keep loving and caring about someone. It’s not a thing that happens once and then ceases. It’s a lifelong process, and it’s hard. It’s messy. It can cause us to become vulnerable.

One of the best examples of the sacrifice necessary to attain love and empathy comes from the laws of the Red Heffer, the Parah Adumah. It is one of the most obscure rituals in the Torah.

Back in Temple times, when you came into contact with a corpse, you became ritually impure. The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, would then make a house-call and perform a ritual that would render you back to a state of ritual purity. Got that? So, you come into contact with the deceased, you become ritually impure, the Kohel Gadol comes to purify you.

Here’s the catch: The High Priest who performs this sacred act of purification becomes, himself, ritually impure as a result.

Friends, the very nature of the red cow’s contradictory ritual is what is so beautiful. That the law of the Parah Adumah renders the ritually impure, pure; and the ritually pure, impure, is a lesson about what it really takes to connect with others in society.

In simple terms, if a friend of mine falls into a ditch, will I not naturally become dirty myself in the process of lifting him out?

Only by getting a little muddy, a little vulnerable, laying ourselves down as a bridge over rough waters will we come to know the fullness of humanity.

And I’ve got to say, the storm last week was a great example of how love exists in our community. Over the last few days, our CBI community and residents of Millburn Township have acted out of love and empathy. We’ve gotten our hands muddy, helping our synagogue, helping our neighbors emerge from the storm. If you’ve driven around Millburn, you’ve seen it yourself — hundreds of volunteers each day, in the residential and business areas, pitching in, lending a hand, building bridges and helping those stuck in the muddy waters emerge whole and clean. Rosh Hashanah looks different this year for so many whose households were turned upside down and others who are out volunteering after shul today instead of eating festive meals. But love is certainly in the air.

Still, let’s challenge ourselves:

May it not take a storm to make this happen. Let’s aim for this sacred work every day of the year. Let us find the conviction to sit across from the Other and just listen. To be sure, it might be scary, for it will open the door to the possibility that we let go of the certainties we maintain, and make space for our positions to evolve and even change.

But there’s a reason why the insistence on empathy with the Other appears with greater frequency in the Torah than any other verse — including commandments to keep kosher and observe Shabbat.  And there’s a reason why love is legislated in the Torah more than any other emotion. These are the critical ingredients for humanity to thrive.

The New York Times should publish an article this year on Thanksgiving, encouraging family members to raise sensitive issues at the dinner table, not shy away from them. Your spouse made a terrible mistake? Sit down and lay it all out there on the table. Roll up your sleeves and talk it through. Your friend has joined a political organization whose views you find unsupportable? Discuss it over a beer. Stay engaged.

If you and the other agree to create a bridge, agree to lay yourselves down, though the waters underneath are troubled, the risk is that your worldview — the one you held as absolute and undeniable — might widen. You might see the humanity in the Other and be moved by their narrative.

The consequence of letting hatred and opposition eclipse the role of love is that we will create fewer and fewer opportunities to connect, fewer and fewer moments of Divine spark in our lives.

And if we travel down this path, we will lose all ability to recognize tears in the eyes of our neighbors, we will lose all ability to identify suffering and darkness in Others, we will lose all ability to offer comfort. If we continue down this path, we wouldn’t be inclined to help our neighbor emerge from a flood.

Bridges take years to construct, and require constant maintenance. We feel — at once — vulnerable and safe while crossing them. Without them, we would find ourselves utterly isolated and alone. I fear that we are heading down a path void of bridges, unless we very quickly infuse humanity with a potent dose of radical love, to use the term coined by David Brooks. It is time to lay ourselves down and reach out to the Other.

Bridge Over Troubled Water | lyrics: Simon & Garfunkel

When you’re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all.

I’m on your side –

When times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Just like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you.

I’ll take your part –

ooh When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Sail on, silvergirl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way.

See how they shine –

If you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down