Rabbi’s Sermon – Rosh Hashanah Day 5774

In thinking about what I could possibly share with you at this holy time, I thought I might help to frame the issue of practical faith.  Naturally I thought of Cookie.  Cookie, for those of you don’t know, is my dog.  She is a Poodle/ Shih-Tzu mix.  She is black and white with curly hair. She weighs all of 15 pounds.  But what I want to tell you is not about Cookie per se: I want to tell you a story about fear and faith.

About 7 years ago, Cookie chose us in a dog store.  We named her on the way home from the store.  We all agreed that she looked like cookie dough ice cream.  Her full name is Cookie Cream Chizner.  Cookie is best described as a house-dog.  She goes into every room where we hang out.  If you are the only one home, she will follow you around wherever you go.  She is very smart and understands quite a few commands.  And, every single night right before I go to bed, she goes through the biggest drama of her life!

Earlier in the evening she will have followed one of the kids upstairs and fallen asleep with one of them in their bed or with my wife, and it is my job to take her out one last time for the night.  So, as quietly and gently as possible I pick her up–not wanting to wake up a sleeping child–and I hold the dog close to my chest and I carry her to the stairs, and then the drama moment happens.  When I get to the first step to walk downstairs, she tenses up: her paws grab my skin and her whole body reacts as if she is falling.

Now, I know that dogs have an innate response to heights, but I just think that she should be able to overcome that.  She is so smart–and she should trust me–but all she sees is the drop.  To her it’s as if I am not there.  Every night as I walk down the steps with her tense body in my arms I whisper to her, “Cookie, I have never dropped you, I have never even slipped, can’t you trust me this once, have faith little doggie have faith.”  And every single night she doesn’t listen to me.

I know what keeps her from finding security in my arms.  She doesn’t have the ability to have faith.

I know that some of you are saying:  “She is a dog . Dogs don’t have faith. “

But I wonder how different she is from us, us humans.  Is this what happens to us when our fears take hold of us? Do we feel like we are falling with nothing supporting us?  Is it that our faith is missing in those moments?  Or is that we just don’t recognize our faith?

The biggest moment of drama in my life came on an afternoon in March this past year.  I had just gotten home after having a CT scan of my abdomen.  The doctor’s office manager called.  She said, “Dr. Rubin would like to speak with you about the results of the CT scan.”  I said, “Ok, how does sometime next week sound?”  She then said in her bravest voice, “Not next week, the doctor needs to speak with you today.”

In that moment, there may not have been a stairway heading downward in front of me, but I felt the floor drop.  I literally reached for the counter in my kitchen.

Later, when I spoke with the doctor, the floor dropped again. He said to me, “You have a small tumor in your pancreas.”  Tumor and pancreas resounded in my ears, and what I interpreted were two other words: death sentence.  I wasn’t just sensing a drop in front of me, I felt like I was falling, endlessly, like a roller coaster drop that was not leveling out.

The doctor quickly tried to assure me that I was a very lucky man.  “The tumor is about the size of a gumball and it is contained.  We won’t know for sure until a biopsy, but it does not look like cancer.  However,” he added, “given the tumor’s location, which is impinging on the duct, it looks like you will definitely need surgery.”

It was all too much.  After, I sat down with my wife Lauren and I said to her, “With all my years of training , all the books I have read, all of my experiences with people, with you (the congregation) in your times of life challenge–all the times I said and truly believed  that I had faith–I was being very naïve.

I confided in Lauren. “I am supposed to have faith.  My faith is supposed to be so strong that it supports a congregation, and at this moment it’s not even supporting me.  Even saying the word “faith” sounded hollow in the face of the raw news I had just received.  There was no bolt of light, no surge of energy lifting my head high saying I shall overcome.  There were only the words of a person feeling like there was no solid ground anywhere: “Oh my God, Oh my God.”

I was now the trembling little doggie, and all I could see was this huge expanse in front of me, and I could not see anything or anyone holding me up. In that moment, I had lost my ability to have faith.

In the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke,

“Falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”
And tonight the heavy earth is falling away
from all other stars in the loneliness.
We’re all falling.
And yet there is someone,
whose hands infinitely calm,
holding up all this falling.”

I was falling and I felt no hands holding me up.

My wife directed me to what would become my first understanding of what would become my practical uses of faith.  She told me to focus in on all the things I needed to get done.   I became like a squirrel preparing for winter.  I frantically began to take care of things.  I called each family member and told them what was going on.  I set an appointment for a biopsy, then a surgeon.  I told all of you at the temple. I told my children. I had to make sure I had life insurance and that my will was in order. It was a quick succession of events – boom, boom, boom.

I didn’t know it at the time, but taking care of all those logistical things was an act of faith.  In fact, it was a quintessential form of Jewish faith, even if I had never looked at it that way before.

A midrash says that when the Israelites, fleeing from slavery, came to the shores of the Red Sea, the frightened people began arguing with one another, each one saying “I will not be the first to go down into the sea.” While they were arguing, a man called Nachshon sprang forward and was the first to enter the waters.  Meanwhile, Moses stood in prayer before God.  God said to him, “My beloved children are in danger at the sea, and you stand here praying?” Moses said, “But Master of the universe, what can I do?” And God answered: “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to go forward.” [ExodusRabba 21:8].

At moments of difficulty, we shouldn’t look to God as the parent in the sky who will get us out of trouble and solve our problems.  That is an immature faith. But the midrash at the sea teaches something different: that human beings must face reality and act to solve their own problems, even when faced with danger and fear.  Don’t do nothing. Help yourself as much as you can.  Move forward step by step.  I am convinced that taking those steps forward is faith, a practical and important element in what it means to have faith.

Over the course of the next few weeks, my family and friends sprang into action, offering help, stopping by, calling, etc. I began to feel a web of support. Then, after my letter went out to the congregation  announcing that I was scheduled to have surgery, your letters started coming in.  Day after day after day you sent me cards, emails, and text messages, left me phone messages, sent flowers to my home, sent chicken soup, deli platters, and cookies. I was moved to tears on several occasions.  I was completely caught off guard by this.  Its not that I didn’t know that you are nice and caring people.   I was not prepared for the feeling of needing your support. I want to honestly admit that up until then I saw my role as rabbi solely as being giving to you.  It was my mistake to see my role in that limited way.  I have given and given (and many times not enough) but I rarely allowed myself to receive from you what you gave and offered.  That has changed.  I can only say that your words of encouragement, your thoughts and prayers–your faith–combined was like being cradled by a web of hundreds of arms.

In the Talmud, we read about the responsibility we each have to each member of the community–we are each others’  “ah-reivin”.  “Ah-reivin” literally means “surety,” one who makes himself responsible for another, either as a sponsor, godparent or a guarantor of a loan.  I didn’t know until then what it meant to truly be part of community–part of this community. I began to feel your taking responsibility for me.  This too is part of my new definition of faith:  Accepting help from others.  We are all so connected and surrounded.  Practical faith is also defined as trusting others.

I want you to have the same support system that I experienced.  Instead of receiving a phone call or a card from the temple or from me or the cantor, how about receiving hundreds of cards?

I want you to volunteer this year to be on our caring committee.  I will send out a letter in the near future and give you more information.  I want everyone to be assured about that faith in your own community, just I had been reassured.

A few days before the surgery , I was all finished with my squirrel-like preparations.  I literally had a check-list, and everything was checked off.  Plus, I felt the good support and power of many peoples’ thoughts and prayers.  All I had to do was wait.  And in that waiting, I began to again get anxious and feel that sense of continuing to fall.

The anxiety was building.  It was real.  My fears were also real.  So many thoughts enter the mind before a major surgery, your own mortality, your loved ones being left without you, your life’s work and your life’s meaning being stopped too soon.  It got to the point that I couldn’t hold on to the fear and anxiety any more, and what happened next has become the last piece of my definition of practical faith.

I let go.  I was like the leaf in the poem but I stopped saying “no.”  I didn’t resist anymore.  I stopped reaching out for counter as the floor gave way at my scary thoughts.  I simply let go.  And something amazing happened. I stopped feeling the floor give out.  I didn’t feel the floor, but I felt suspended in space.

In the famous poem “Footsteps” by Mary Stevenson, a poem that I had always thought of as overly cliché, I now realize that I just didn’t get it then.  The poem describes a conversation between a person and God while they are walking on a beach. A trail of footprints represents the path of the person’s life. When the person in the poem turns around to look, she sees that there are times when there is only one set of footprints in the sand. She gets upset with God and asks why God had abandoned her during those times, which were the most difficult and frightening times of her life. God replied, “The times when you saw only one set of footprints in the sand, that’s when I carried you.”

On the night before the surgery, I picked up cookie off the bed, and when I got to the top of the steps, sure enough her body tensed. I whispered in her ear something I had never said before: “Don’t worry, don’t worry little doggie, you’re in my arms and I’m falling too, but both of us are being held up, by strong forces within and by very strong forces around us and beyond us. “

May we all connect with power of our own faith, and may we find ways to see it as a practical source of strength in our lives.

Thank you everyone, from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for giving me my faith back.

Shanah Tovah,
Rabbi Todd Chizner