Sermon Shabbat Vayera 5779 -- October 26, 2018
The Second Shabbat of Congregation Beit Simcha
“I have good news and bad news,” the old joke has the doctor begin. “Which do you want first?”
The patient answers, “The bad news.”
The doctor says, “Your operation will cost much more than predicted, and it’s not covered by insurance.”
“Oy vey!” the patient moans. “So what's the good news?”
And the doctor answers, “I can buy a new Mercedes.”
Exactly two years ago, on this same Shabbat Vayera on a different pulpit, I gave a sermon about good news and bad news. There is a lot of both in this sedrah, just as there can be a lot of both in our own lives.
In our Torah portion, as Charlotte has eloquently highlighted, angels play an important role, but angels in the Book of Genesis are principally messengers, and each has the responsibility of being a single-use conveyor of information from God, either good news or bad news. It is very well established: one angel, one message, one angel for good news, one for bad. If you have three angels, as Abraham does at the start of Vayera, there must be three distinct messages. One might be a good message of true blessing—like the angel who tells Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son, Isaac—while another angel might bring a bad message, informing that Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed.
One angel for good news, another for bad news.
In the Torah, at least in Genesis, it seems pretty simple. Life, however, is not like that. Sometimes good news turns out not to be so great in the long run; and sometimes really bad news ultimately turns out to be for the best. In spite of our intelligence, education and sophistication, we aren’t given the ability to see the future clearly enough to know how things will turn out in the end. Good can bring bad; bad can even sometimes bring good.
For example, there was a huge lottery jackpot last week, well over one and a half billion dollars, won by one person in Simpsonville, South Carolina. I hope the recipient enjoys his or her winnings, and lives a long and valuable life. I also hope she or he is interested in supporting a new synagogue in northwest Tucson, Arizona… although I suspect we wouldn’t be the only ones to ask for some of those winnings. But winning the lottery often doesn’t work out very well for the winners. You may not know this, but a large percentage of lottery winners end up broke within a few years, and many winners have said later that winning the lottery ended up being the worst thing that ever happened to them. Most of us would take that chance, but still, it’s surprising.
You see, sometimes good news can actually be bad news—and, similarly, sometimes bad news can be turned into good.
Perhaps that has been the enduring experience of this complex, challenging, weird, and sometimes fulfilling year or so for me. Maybe it has been all about finding the good news in the bad news, bringing forth light out of what seemed very dark at times.
My friends, I promised last week that I would share some of the lessons of this past year with you on this Shabbat. It may be that what I have to share tonight is simply experiences, rather than lessons, but they have been valuable and, I hope, meaningful. It has been a complicated time, one of both substantial personal loss and of growth and opportunity.
The word that has the most resonance for me, and has consistently had the most resonance over the past year, is resiliency, the ability to overcome adversity, to remain buoyant when things have gone very wrong, to swim instead of drowning when the floodwaters inevitably come. Resiliency is what allowed a 99-year old man named Abraham to rise from the pain of self-circumcision to greet his guests and provide rich hospitality in spite of personal pain. It is what has allowed every persecuted generation of our people to respond to loss and suffering by renewing the commitment to Judaism, to God and to hope. Hatikvah is the national anthem of Israel, but its title, and its lyrics of hope, reflect nearly two thousand years of insisting on belief in the face of failure. Judaism’s survival and the restoration of our national homeland is perhaps the truest example of resiliency in all of human history. We Jews bounce back, no matter what has happened.
The first observation is that I have been blessed with some extraordinary friends, some of them quite unexpectedly so, and their support through this year has been amazing. I am deeply grateful for the unflagging and inspired loyalty, warmth and love that I have been the recipient of since last September. I am sure that I would not be standing here without my friends’ energy and generosity, the time, dedication and care they have lavished on me. It has been an extraordinary affirmation of human decency and goodness at a time when these qualities have seemed scarce. I am incredibly thankful that God has blessed me with such friends.
So, to recap a little, very unexpectedly, and some would say unfairly, 13 months ago I found myself with far more time on my hands than I have ever had in my life. In addition to dealing with a variety of complicated situations that arose, I spent much of that time with my children, visiting both my sons at their respective colleges and spending what used to be called quality time with each of them as well as with my daughter. Being a Jewish parent, quite naturally I think that my own kids are extraordinary. There’s an old joke: What’s the definition of a genius? An average child with a Jewish parent. I discovered not that they are geniuses—smart, of course!—but that they have grown into really terrific young adults, and I had the opportunity to share some of that growth with them. It’s easy to let these changes pass without seeing them, and too often that has been the case in my own life while I worked so many hours in my previous position, sometimes so many that I wasn’t always able to share enough in their triumphs and challenges.
I also had more time to spend with my parents, who are, thank God, both still alive and active. They are not getting any younger or healthier, however. About eleven months ago, just after Thanksgiving 2017, my dad and I had a minor communication problem. He had forgotten to inform me of a commitment for our family’s foundation that was scheduled just a few days after I had returned from Los Angeles for Thanksgiving. Reluctantly, I booked a flight back and flew to LA for a single day for the event. It was the kind of last-minute trip I would not have been able to make when I had my typical commitments in my previous congregation.
Because of that, unexpectedly, I was there I was with my father, Rabbi Baruch Cohon, when he had a stroke and suddenly lost the ability to communicate. Although my last scientific training was in a high school biology class, I have had a great deal of experience visiting people in hospitals and care facilities, recognized the symptoms and insisted on rushing my dad to the emergency room. According to the doctors, if we had waited even an hour longer it would have been too late, and the effects of the stroke would have been permanent. Thanks to outstanding medical care and miracle drugs, he recovered fully, and could speak again by the next morning. Perhaps it was beshert that I was there and could return on several other occasions for extended periods. Seeing him recover fully, and being able to study Talmud with him a number of times over the past year, has been a great gift. Sometimes bad news can lead to good.
Over a few months last winter both my mother and father were hospitalized multiple times, and fairly often ended up in the ER. Most of you who have had aging parents—OK, old parents—know this experience well. Because of the flexibility of my situation I was able to travel there to help, which would never had been possible otherwise. And my experience with hospitals and medicine, however untrained, proved useful a number of times in interacting with medical professionals. I thank God I was able to be there for my parents.
And in another area, and an unexpected one, the Jewish experiences I have had over the past year have been extraordinary: blowing shofar Rosh HaShanah morning in Bear Canyon, the echoes resounding and startling the nearby wildlife; spending Yom Kippur at an Orthodox shul, an intense and deep if, well, exhausting experience indeed. Having wonderful Seders on Passover in my own home. Cycling the 55-mile Ride for the Living with my son Boaz, riding with two Holocaust survivors in Poland, biking from Auschwitz-Birkenau to the Krakow JCC with two men who walked out of the concentration camp at the ages of 16 and 10, respectively, and had returned, one of them with a son and grandchildren, to affirm their own Jewish resilience 73 years later, all while experiencing vital young Jewish life in today’s Eastern Europe. Helping lead Shabbat services in Warsaw and Krakow, Poland for energetic progressive congregations. Leading High Holy Day services and celebrating Shabbat and Sukkot with a fascinating community, Kehilat Shanghai in China, seeing how an active congregation can flourish without a building solely because its members care deeply about living their own Judaism in a profoundly non-Jewish environment. And just two weeks ago, the incredible experience of flying to London with my son to bring back the new Torah for our congregation from the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust, connecting with a sacred responsibility to preserve our heritage in an amazing way.
But perhaps the greatest experience of resiliency has been the development of this fledgling Congregation Beit Simcha, an effort of love and energy and faith. For out of this year of transition, of loss and waiting and growth and resilience, has come the opportunity to create something truly new, fresh and vital. The excitement of being able to share with you a new synagogue, to build a congregation, a true kehilah kedoshah, a holy community, is affirming in ways nothing else truly can be. It is a special trust, a sacred gift.
When we sing of angels at the end of our service tonight in Shalom Aleichem we are looking for the good-news angels, the ones that bring in Shabbat and accompany us with an extra soul on this sacred day according to tradition. But sometimes even the bad-news angels ultimately bring in goodness.
So may it be for us, not only on this Shabbat individually, but also as a new community of holiness.
PLEASE join us tonight Monday, October 29, at 7:00pm as our Tucson Jewish community gathers for a "Tree of Life Candlelight Vigil... a Multi-faith Community Gathering" in the Sculpture Garden at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.