The Big Picture – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon – October 3, 2016

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon delivered by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at the Congregational Service of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, on October 3, 2016. We encourage you to share questions or comments below, and to share this post on Facebook, Twitter, and by email, to continue to engender dialogue on its themes.

Somewhere on this day, perhaps in a congregation like ours, sits a woman named Ilana. It is Rosh Hashanah, and on yuntif, Ilana remembers sitting by her parents. I don’t know whether her folks are still alive. But after all these years, on Rosh Hashanah she sees herself as sitting spiritually beside her parents, encountering the pages in the prayerbook as though the hands turning them are her dad’s hands. For Ilana, it’s just that way. She is a grown woman now. But when she was 10 years old, an author named Robert Coles, a writer and Harvard researcher about children, interviewed her about what it meant to be a Jewish person, and how she felt about God. Ilana, at 10, told Robert Coles this story about God. It began with her parents.

“My daddy,” she said, “does a lot of flying…he goes all over the world. He’s taken me on trips, and on the plane he points out the cities, the rivers, the farms and mountains. When you go on a plane, you’re nearer to God- because you can see the world, a lot of it, more than when you’re on land, and you realize how big the whole universe is, and people, they’re not even visible. Their cars are moving and you know that people are in them, but you can’t see them. That’s why you have to stop yourself and say: Am I…looking at the big picture… or am I inside my car, only thinking of where I want to go, right now?” (Spiritual Life of Children, Robert Coles, p. 255, Boston MA 1990)

Am I looking at the big picture? Or just thinking of where I want to go right now? Such questions are as alive for a 10-year old as for any of us gathered here today! At all stages in life, we strive to hold precious the moments granted to us. But on the High Holy Days, each of us is a little like Ilana, puzzled, questioning, and striving to connect the dots between the flight our parents took to get us here and the everyday energies needed to get us where we are going.

This motif of trying to understand the generations before us claims much of Rosh Hashanah. Even our Torah readings feature children in vulnerable places, looking for parents to love them, protect them and respond to them. Isaac wants to know his father’s motive for their hike up Mount Moriah. Avi? He asks, which simply means, “Daddy?” A chapter earlier, a young Ishmael cries out for his mother, Hagar. Due to a family conflict, this mother and son are banished to the wilderness. It is not immediately clear whether his cries will be answered. What’s so sad is that Ishmael’s birth was a time of rejoicing! But now his family is in deep conflict and a tender child is left to cry for his mom. If a ten-year old Ilana interpreted this passage, she’d tell us to look at the big picture, and not just wish away the human frailties that this evocative story reveals?

The big picture to me- is that for a young Ishmael to ever understand what happened that broke his family in two, he will need to ask questions. He’ll need responses from the adults in his life who care for him. As a child, he is thirsty for nothing more than water and more food rations. But as Ishmael matures, like almost every child you’ll ever meet, he will want to know who he is and where he came from, his heritage and lineage. Aren’t these the same things we each want to know when we gather with our families for our holidays. We long for them to see the world as largely as possible. We want our legacy to be apparent and to be relevant to our children. But how do you assure that? Or perhaps I should ask…how do you begin to assure that? I can answer that in four words: think like a child.

Think like a child. Perhaps there is a child who is part of your family to help you. If there is no child, then be the child yourself. Think like a child. Do what they do naturally. Play in the sand, slide down a hill, make a loud noise, laugh, cry, tease your brother or sister. At your family get-together, sit at the kids table! But like a child- always, always ask big questions about how the world works. Look at how big the universe is, and help the people around you to see it too.

That is the big picture. That is the alternative to just doing and going and moving and paying your way through life, numb to what is really happening. We must look at the world the way a child looks at a bunch of free time on a fall afternoon. They don’t say, ‘let me see how I can fill up my day.’ They say, ‘Good. Who wants to play?’ They ask, ‘what can I learn? What secret can I unlock? Who wants to put together a puzzle? Who wants to discover something new with me?’ Think like a child, I tell you. Question and plan and discover like a child! That is the big picture.

Consider it a mitzvah: If your parents are still alive to call, reach out to them. If they are no longer here on this earth, remember today all the times you called them just to be reassured by their voice. Remember the times they talked you down from some anxiety. Hell, remember the times they caused you anxiety. Even remember the times they admitted to you that they were the ones who were anxious or scared. All of this and more will help you see the big picture.

Another way to do this is to think of a question for your loved ones before you, the answer to which you don’t know, or you don’t remember. It could be a factual question like, who was your first kiss? Or it could be a question they wouldn’t have volunteered to you, like what made them close the family business or whether they ever had doubts about their marriage. If you need help coming up with  questions, just look at your family photos or talk to your cousins or friends.

I bet you’ll realize there are things you never asked them about. If it seems like your folks are just too old or they just won’t remember the answer to what you want to ask them, that may be true. But I have also found that things are not always what they seem.

A story. This took place when my dad was about 3 years into the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease. I admit: because he wasn’t saying much anymore, I was beginning to question whether he remembered his life. We were visiting my parents in Michigan, and my mom asked us to take him out to get dad some new sandals.

I helped him get into the car, and put my son into the backseat. But instead of going to the nearest shoe store to their home, I drove 25 minutes over to Pontiac, to Mr. Alan’s, a shoe store just up the road from my dad’s childhood home. Sandal shopping turned out to be a fool’s errand. Dad had more or less forgotten how to put sandals on.  But before we left Pontiac, I drove him over to Cherokee, the street on which he and his sisters grew up.  We came to a stop, and I put the car in park. Not sure if he remembered where we were or who I was, I nevertheless asked dad to point to his childhood home for my son, then a toddler.

A long silence filled the car. Then something clicked. Sitting on the side of a street he hadn’t lived on for five decades, Dad focused his eyes out my window and to the right. He said: “It’s right there!” He excitedly pointed to the front door at which my bobe would call him in from outside. In the next five exquisite minutes, some of my favorite moments ever, I learned how to get to his high school. I learned which way to my zayde’s medical practice. More important than any one thing, I learned some of the formative memories of Michael Nosanchuk, and I learned that somewhere beneath a crippling disease, he was alive inside. And how did I find that out? Because I thought maybe just maybe, there is a big picture…and for a few minutes I got the chance to be in that picture with my son and his Papa, l’dor vador.

One of the most important things my parents ever did for me was to send me as a teenager, to a summer camp where I still return every year as the dean of the faculty. When I was just a kid, one of the Rabbis who taught at the camp would, realizing we were hundreds of miles away from our homes, help us see the big picture of our families by conducting a special educational exercise and a discussion to follow it.

His lesson plan was simple enough. He would give each of us an index card and tell us to write down our response. ‘If you had one question,’ he’d ask, ‘just one question to ask your parents, and you knew they had to answer honestly, what would you ask?’ Then on the back of the card, he asked us to guess, how would they answer? The discussions that followed were always cathartic, and the letters we later sent home amazing.  But as I matured. I learned a whole different perspective on this exercise. I spoke with the rabbi who led the activity. He revealed to me that every time he did the activity, every time, kids wrote: ‘Do you love me? Did you want me? Am I the reason you fight with one another? What would you do if I died?’

Kids have a way of cutting to the chase. Don’t they? Yet our answers to their questions aren’t just in words. We answer kids when we encourage them, and when we listen to their ideas. We answer the kids in our communities when we mentor them, share opportunities with them and stay with them as they struggle. Answering them is not easy. Just ask Abraham or Hagar how they struggled to make the right response to the questions and cries of their children. But know this. It is supposed to be a struggle. For struggling and questioning and puzzling of the meaning of our lives is at the core of Judaism. It is a spiritual practice that we call teshuvah.

You may have thought teshuvah was only repentance. But teshuvah, in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (Ehud Loz, Arthur Cohen, Paul Mendes Flohr, eds.) “has two distinct meanings. The first derives from the verb ‘to return.’…In this sense it signifies going back to one’s point of origin, returning to the straight path, coming home after a period of absence. The second derives from the verb ‘to reply’ and denotes response to a question or a call that has come from without.” What I am trying to get across today, this Rosh Hashanah, is that the teshuvah we seek on the High Holy Days can be framed by both meanings. It can be about returning to our source and about responding to a call.

Responding to a call. No one has a perfect record at this. Not our parents nor theirs. A mom named Meg Conley wrote recently on the blog of the Huffington Post about responding to the call of her children every day.  In a beautiful article, she describes how she and her partner stay connected with their kids every day simply by asking and answering the same three questions.

Here are the questions.

The first one is: How were you brave today?

The second question is, how were you kind today?

The final question she asks and answers to her kids is, “how did you fail today?”

These three questions are ones Meg Conley asks and answers with her children at bedtime. But today, Rosh Hashanah morning, I think they are better as questions to frame our wakefulness and ability to greet the new year on Rosh Hashanah. I see these questions as the ones to help us respond to this first day of a bright and pure, open and unscathed, brand new year. When we sound the shofar at the climactic moments of this morning’s service, we’ll three different calls, Tekiah, Teruah, Shevarim, each bearing a kind of truth in the outcry we make to God.

What if we heard in each shofar sound, a question to which we must respond- Tekiah, how will we be brave this new year? Teruah- how will we be kind in the year ahead? Shevarim- how will we fail in 5777. For surely we will fail. But failure will not be the end of us. We will look at the vastness of the universe, and the wondrous possibilities that emerge when we each think like a child and never stop seeking answers.

Let me say it again in the form of a prayer. As this new year begins, Tekiah- may you each be brave. Teruah- may your kindness resound through the generations in your families. And finally, Shevarim. May your failures not be the end of you. You have a purpose. You are more than the place you are going right now. There is a big picture, and you and I, all of us, we’re all in it, Amen.