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Get Angry, Be Joyful

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur morning.  We require the emotions of anger and joy to face life's uncertainties.


A Hasidic story. When the seer of Lublin was a child, he lived near a forest. Almost every day the young boy ventured off into the woods by himself. His father, who was basically a tolerant and understanding man, didn’t want to interfere with his son’s daily excursions, but to be honest, he was concerned. He knew all too well that the forests near their home could be dangerous. One day the father pulled his son aside and said, “I notice that every day you go off by yourself into the forest.” He continued, “I don’t want to forbid you from going there, but I want you to know that I am worried about your safety.” The father added, “Why is it that you go there, and what is it that you are doing there?” The boy responded, “I go into the forest to find God.” His father was deeply moved by his son’s spirituality. “That’s beautiful my son,” he said. “And I am pleased to hear that you are doing that and searching for God in the forest. But don’t you know? God is everywhere. God is the same wherever you go.” “God is,” the boy answered, “But I am not.”

The spiritual quest is not about finding a new forest, or even a different and safer forest, but instead about finding a new self. It is about changing ourselves. Every day we are different. And every day we have to start that search anew. The search is about making ourselves different, each and every day. And that to be honest, is confounding and exceedingly difficult, most especially given the times we currently find ourselves in. How do we get up each morning and go out into the world, when confronted with such uncertainty? Every day there seems some new bit of evidence, or advice, about when to wear masks or how many shots to get. Is it advisable to go out to a restaurant, or Yom Kippur services? Is it ok to get together with friends now that the Delta variant is circulating? Is the forest safe or dangerous? Last night we tackled the question of how do we live through change. And the answer was—or to be fair my answer was, embrace it. Make it your own. This morning’s question is more personal. How do we deal with uncertainty? How do we continue to wrap our arms around life when faced with uncertainty after uncertainty after uncertainty? And the answer is. By changing ourselves.

The problems, and challenges, of the past year are here to stay. We naively believed that this High Holidays would be the same as 2019 and that 2020 would be just a blip. We thought this year would offer us the opportunity to reflect on what we learned during the pandemic not that we would still be in the midst of it. Let’s be honest. We will be living with Covid for the foreseeable future. We have two choices. Pretend like it’s no big deal and will go away soon or face the painful truth that our present reality is going to be part of our lives in some way for years to come. We will be wearing masks for far longer than we ever imagined possible. We will be monitoring infection rates for years to come. And this acknowledgment that the end is not yet in sight creates tremendous uncertainty and unease.

Of course, we would all prefer that our lives could go back to those days when we did not wonder whether or not the person we brushed up against is vaccinated or not, whether talking to an unmasked stranger in the supermarket line is dangerous or not. The only way to deal with such unpleasant realities is to acknowledge them. The only way to tackle our fears is to own them. Head into the forest. Not to escape the world but to discover a new you. We can change the world a little bit, but we can change ourselves a lot.

First let’s talk about how we change the world. There are so many problems our world is facing. I am sure each of us has a lengthy list. I explored a number of these contemporary challenges on Rosh Hashanah. My question on this Yom Kippur is not so much what these problems are, but how we can face them. Here is the surprising answer. Get angry. Ignite action. You might be surprised to hear me say this. I think we need to discover the right kind of anger. We need to recover the sense that we can change things, that our seemingly insignificant actions can write a new course for the world. We are not allowed to say, “It does not matter what I do.”

We must reclaim the passion of the prophets of old, who so felt the urgency of the problems in their own day that they sacrificed almost everything else in order that others might take up God’s call. This morning we chanted the words of Isaiah. He said: “Is not this the fast I desire—to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved? Is it not share your bread with the hungry and to take the homeless poor into your home, and never to neglect your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58) I admit. Their passion and righteous indignation often got the better of them. They frequently pushed family and friends away. They were consumed by God’s message. They were overwhelmed by their anger. They always shouted. And never listened. Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked, “The prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears.” (The Prophets)

The brilliance of our rabbis was to take the prophets’ words out of their own times and place them as weekly, contemporary reminders. They have us read these words of the Haftarah at the exact moment when we might be thinking, “Wow, even though I am really hungry, this hunger is my path to holiness.” No. This Yom Kippur fast is not enough. And it is not even the main thing. It is so we understand what hunger means. It is so we think of those who do not have enough food to feed their families. It is so we think not of the bagels and lox waiting for us after a long day of prayer and repentance but instead of those who are hungry and homeless only miles from our homes. It is a shame that we too often chant the prophets in Hebrew rather than dwell on the meaning of their words. The Hebrew insulates us from their all too contemporary message. We need to rediscover their passion. We need to reclaim a measure of the prophets’ anger.

David Whyte offers this counsel: “Anger is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt…. Anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.” (Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words) Whyte points us towards a truth we must reclaim. Anger is about becoming attuned to the world’s hurt and allowing it to make us do more than just curl up in bed and cry. It is about lighting a fire so that we get up each and every day and get out there and start fixing things—or at the very least start trying to change things in our own little world. We are not allowed to look at the world and shrug. We are not allowed to become exasperated and lose hope. And while we cannot hold all the world’s problems in one heart, we each have the strength to hold a few.

Start somewhere. Start fixing something. Get out there and do something about all this mess. There is plenty of brokenness to be repaired. That begins with the emotion of anger. Of course, we cannot, and should not, stay angry all the time. Too often we confuse anger with rage. That is what we keep getting wrong. Anger is about concern. It begins with justice and a feeling about what must be righted. It is about believing that this or that must be improved and can be made better. Rage is about pointing fingers and assigning blame. It is about shouting at others, whether that be politicians or even friends. Rage leads to measuring success against the missteps of political opponents and our ideological foes. Too often rage takes us down a path of vengeance. Anger comes from a soul that believes the world can be made better, the world is deserving of repair. It begins with concern for others and the world. It stems from a belief that this crumbling earth is deserving of our blessings and our efforts to improve it. Anger is about channeling the chutzpah of the prophets and saying, “I may very well be the person who can bring some healing.” That is why we welcome the prophet Elijah to every baby naming. We say, “This kid might really fix things.” Rage begins with the clenched fist. Anger emerges within the heart. Anger leads us to bringing a measure of certainty to all this uncertainty.

The other way involves some shouting too. Instead of shouting our passionate anger, we shout joy at this uncertainty. We sing for joy even though life is so maddeningly random. Again, there is confusion. We think control offers certainty. (Haaretz, September 10, 2021) We think that if we shout louder, bring more fervor to our songs, or recite our prayers perfectly at their exact appointed hour, then our fate will be better sealed. Decisiveness about our prayers does not change the randomness of life. There is much beyond the reach of our hands. There is much beyond the influence of our prayers. Look at the frightening Unetanah Tokef prayer we chanted. “On Rosh Hashanah this is written and on the Fast of Yom Kippur this is sealed: How many will pass away from this world, how many will be born into it; who will live and who will die; who will reach the ripeness of age; who will be taken before their time; who by fire and who by water…” And what is this prayer about? It is about affirming the haphazard, and randomness, of life. The back-and-forthness of its list gives voice to life’s uncertainty.

People might be saying, “I want more certainty. I want my rabbi to tell me if I pray this prayer better then everything will be ok.” I will not. I will not offer fantasies. Such guarantees are an illusion. Go elsewhere if you want magic. I can only offer healing. I can promise that singing will dispel some of that fear. I can offer the assurance that our prayers can help us push some of that uncertainty into a corner of our hearts and help to keep it tucked away there. All we can do is sing. All we should do is sing. I know this is an imperfect answer. Then again life is an imperfect journey. There is so much to fear. How are we going to conquer it? That is an impossible quest. There is only one possibility. Figure out where you can hold these fears and how you can more than occasionally cast them aside.

As many people now know, I was in a bike accident five weeks ago. As you can see, I am ok, and although my ribs and shoulder are still bruised, I will be back on the bike as soon as the replacement parts arrive, and it can be repaired. Here is the story of what happened. I was finishing a quick 25-mile ride and was at the 20-mile mark when I decided to add a hill and then loop back to my house by way of Huntington harbor. This new route involved going on more heavily trafficked road. I was rounding a bend when all of sudden I saw black in front of me. I quickly realized this was the side of a car, pulling out from the auto body shop of all places, and so I squeezed the brakes. My rear tire slid sideways, and I heard a terrible crunch as my right side slammed into the car. The next thing I know I am lying on the pavement, writhing in pain, while people are screaming, “Someone call 9-11. I can’t get a signal. Can anyone get a signal?” And I remember thinking, “Of course you can’t a signal. This is Long Island.” And then I thought, “All this screaming and shouting, ‘Call 9-11’ is about me.” Then I had the most frightening thought, “That’s a really good idea.”

Someone else kept shouting, “Hey buddy. Don’t move.” And another screamed, “Is there someone I should call?” I said, “Call Susie. Her number is on my ankle bracelet.” John called Susie but she did not pick up. Everyone was screaming. I guess the good kind of shouting really does come from the heart. Bill put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t move. The EMT’s are on their way. You’re going to be alright.” The ambulance arrived and they loaded me on to a stretcher. They then gave me my phone and I called Susie. She answered and I said, “Hi sweetheart. I’m ok, but I was in an accident, and they are taking me to the hospital.” And then I added words that would only be heard in a rabbi’s house, “You should go do your congregant’s funeral first and then meet me at Huntington Hospital after you’re finished.” “Are you sure?” she asked. “I am coming now” she shouted. “No,” I insisted. “I am going to be ok. I love you. See you soon.” Two hours later, as well as after an IV and some CAT scans, I walked out of the hospital. No broken bones. No head or neck trauma. No internal injuries. To say I am really, really lucky is an enormous understatement.

I keep thinking if I was going a little faster, he would have slammed into me and sent me flying over the car’s hood and perhaps into oncoming traffic. If he was delayed ten seconds I would have whizzed right by and would never have come to know his name. Those differences can be measured in seconds and inches. Well-meaning friends kept saying, “God was watching out for you.” And I also keep thinking, “What if? Why me? What about others who are not so lucky? And I have a list of those names carved into my soul. I have been doing this rabbi thing for a long time—thirty years to be exact—and all I can say for sure is there is no such thing as a protective bubble. And I don’t know why. I have no perfect answers to all this randomness and uncertainty. And I don’t believe anyone who offers them. I am hesitant before certitudes.

This does not mean I should stop wearing a helmet. A new one is already waiting for me. Just because life is random and there are no guarantees does not mean we should take unnecessary risks and not take precautions. To any of my students who decide to ride a bike without wearing a helmet, I promise you this. You will have your rabbi to answer to in addition to your parents. And on another more important note, get the vaccine. Wear a mask in crowds. Prayer is no substitute for common sense and good medicine.

The Unetanah Tokef prayer affirms life’s randomness. I admit this is disquieting. We crave certainty. And still we sing its words with joy. We offer this upbeat tune that belies the prayer’s frightening imagery. And that tune is the truer word. The song exemplifies our best response. That energetic, and lively, way we sing Unetanah Tokef summarizes how we should approach all this randomness and uncertainty. “B’rosh Hashanah…” The secret is the song. Prayer is not really about theology. It is instead about the music. Only that can fill the cracks in our hearts. Only the song can placate our fears.

When I lie awake at night, I can still hear the crunch as my body smashed into that car. I also can still feel the hand of a stranger on my shoulder. I can still hear his words, “You are going to be alright.” And I can also still feel my grandfather’s hand on my back when I first learned how to ride a bike. I can still hear his voice from fifty some years ago, “You’re doing it Steven. No more training wheels. You’re riding a bike.” These feelings will get me back on the road. His shouts of joy behind me carry me forward. Our tradition’s songs pacify my fears.

There is a road forward. It is carved by finding a new self. It is paved with two emotions. Be joyful. Get angry. That is the path to a new self. That is the road forward.

Get angry. And ignite action. Be joyful. And spark happiness. These must be our twin responses to all this uncertainty. Hold both of these together. Hold both of these at once.

Addendum: I later discovered that three of my ribs were indeed fractured and my rotator cuff suffered some tears. Nonetheless, I am still very lucky.