February 28, 2024 -
This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Yom Kippur, 2019. We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.
There is a famous Jewish parable about a dove fleeing from a hawk. The dove hides in the cleft of a rock only to find there a vicious snake. She couldn’t stay due to the snake. She couldn’t leave due to the hawk. What did she do? She screamed and flapped her wings hoping to be heard and rescued. Our sages compare her to Israel fleeing Egypt, who could not enter the sea, for it had not yet split; nor could we retreat, for Pharaoh was approaching. What did we do? We admitted our fear. We cried out for redemption and we were freed. (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 2, 14:2)
It’s impossible to estimate how many times a rabbi has taught this story, given our beleaguered Jewish history threatened by so many hawks and snakes. But I am drawn to the moment when the dove realizes: if only she admits her fear aloud, someone may hear her cry. The dove doesn’t give up. She asks God not to give up on her. No wonder generations have been drawn to the parable. Almost every human being knows the feeling of being afraid of a force larger than ourselves. Many fighting such a battle thought we were doing everything right. But even while hiding in the cleft of a rock, we found snakes who could take our lives.
Yom Kippur forces us to confront this fear for our lives. Tonight we began worship staring into an empty ark, devoid of its life-affirming scrolls. The ark thus resembles the coffin in which we are buried. The words we pray at Kol Nidre directly ask forgiveness in advance for promises we will not fulfill. Why? Because of what no one wants to say… that we may not survive until next Yom Kippur. This evening and tomorrow, we fast. We refrain from work. We do not make love. We withdraw physically from life. Almost every word we say on Yom Kippur admits that we are not “in charge.” Tonight, that gravity seems right. But every ordinary day until next Yom Kippur, admitting we are not “in charge” takes a strength I’m not sure I ever had…until this past April 30.
On April 30, 2019, I was a man with a plan. I had a lot going on. I was leaving that afternoon for a flight to NY. I’d follow up the next day flying to meet up with three dozen Fairmount Temple travelers touring Israel. Ten days after Israel was our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah right here in this sanctuary. But at noon on April 30, Joanie and I met with a Cleveland Clinic oncologist. It was then I learned that an aggressive and potentially fast-growing melanoma had metastasized within me. Discovering it was a miracle for no cancerous lesion had ever appeared on my skin.
Almost every moment of the five months since April 30 have been a crash course for me in not being “in charge.” I am blessed to have some of best expert doctors in the world calling plays and managing intensive cancer treatments for me. When I encounter people, the most common question I am asked is, “Are you afraid?” Tonight, I can honestly answer you: I am not afraid. I am terrified. I am trembling. I want to flap my wings. I want to scream out loud. I want to find a hiding place. Most of all, I want to know that someone will hear me, respond to me and save me from the hawk chasing me.
It is not surprising a health crisis prompts this struggle. So often it is people fighting an illness or recovering from injury that have their faith in redemption tested. Yom Kippur adds another challenge, as I wonder if something I did made me sick. In this, I am not alone. For I’ve realized how many of my doctors are counting on not just what is infused in my veins, but on what arises from my commitment with them to achieve healing, restoration, and one day, I hope, remission.
Well-known author Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen writes about a time she was being anesthetized for a serious medical procedure. Just before it began, her surgeon asked if he might say a prayer. When she assented, the doctor whispered to her: Dear God, help us to do here whatever is most right. She writes that “with these few words…The almost paralyzing fear that had been my daily companion, released me, and holding his words close I went under anesthesia with the deepest sense of peace.”
Dr. Remen also tells a story that took place many years ago when she was five years old starting kindergarten. It was 1943, and the principal of her school, P.S. 173, called an assembly. The principal opened the meeting…reading from a Bible and told the children that they needed to get on their knees and pray every day to get God to look at them, to remind God that they were there. If God forgot us and turned His face from they…they would wither up and die like an autumn leaf. She said this while holding up a large withered dead leaf.
Horribly troubled, Rachel spoke to her grandpa who was a source of tremendous endearment to her. Through her tears, she asked him what would happen if God looked away from her or blinked. He responded “Nashumelah…If you woke up in the dark in your room would you know if your [parents] had gone out of the house and left you alone? “Of course I would,” she told him. “How would you know this? Would you see them?” “No,” she said, “Would you hear them?” “No,” she said. “Then how would you know you were not alone in the house?” She looked at him with irritation. “I would just know Grandpa,” she told him. “Yes, of course you would,” he said. “And that’s how God knows you are there too. God does not need to look at you to know you are there. God knows in the same way you know God is there and that you are not alone…” (http://www.rachelremen.com/not-alone-in-the-house)
You are not alone. This simple message can be conveyed to people fighting for their lives. I’m telling you right now it is the most valuable message to send to those in treatment. Tell them: “I am right here.” Say: “I want you to live.” Such expressions of solidarity can come from a grandparent, a spouse, a child, a neighbor, a classmate or even a fellow synagogue member.
Some people say that the love and commitment of your dearest ones can literally save your life. I learned this almost 20 years ago when my Zayde and Bobe went on a South American cruise. My grandfather was in his late 80’s and had been planning the cruise in South America for months. But it turned out to be a disaster. While most passengers were appreciating the luxury ship and the beautiful scenery, Zayde went into heart failure. Ultimately my grandparents needed to be airlifted by helicopter to a nearby hospital. The chopper took them to a small Argentinian village called Ushuaia, perched on a steep hill at the southernmost tip of the continent. The nickname for Ushuaia literally means the “end of the world.” This much I know to be true. The rest of the story was told to me third hand but it originated with my Bobe.
Apparently, shortly after arriving in that small Ushuaia medical center, my Zayde’s heart stopped beating and they shocked him back to life. Then his heart stopped again and my Bobe grabbed him by his cheeks. She brought herself close to him and said, “Joe, you are not going to die here. You are going to live.” He awoke and settled into a faint but audible heartbeat. Days later, he was airlifted over the Andes Mountains to Buenos Aires to receive more advanced care, and was home in Detroit weeks later. When he did pass away, Zayde had lived two more years of a nine-decade life. He was accompanied by loved ones including my oldest brother Bruce who was the last to kiss him goodbye. He died safe, sound and not at the end of the earth.
It’s quite a story. Isn’t it? But I want you to notice something: at no point in the story was I present. No, I have to take what happened in Ushuaia on faith. I wasn’t there, not when he died nor when he almost died. So I can’t say for certain whether Bobe really grabbed him and told him not to die.
Is it even possible to will another person back into life? I don’t know. But I hope so. I hope that no matter how afraid we are of what can kill us, when it’s a choice between a sea parting or a mighty Pharaoh, we will have faith in the sea and choose to believe in redemption. It is that redemption that most interests me tonight. For isn’t that why we observe Yom Kippur? Aren’t we here seeking redemption? Aren’t we hoping be redeemed from our past and launched into a new year, in health, strength and vigor?
Maybe that’s not why you’re here. But no matter what compels you to be in this sanctuary on Kol Nidre, I won’t ask you to make a promise you will break. It is hard, very difficult to trust in an invisible source of redemption to secure our release from what shackles us. For so many of us have borne witness to illness or injury that took good and decent souls away from us, no matter how much love we showed them. But it is not 19 years ago in some remote South American village, when an 87-year-old’s heart began to fail. Nor is it 5,000 years ago at the shores of a sea in the Middle East, when an oppressed but resilient Israelite people had to choose faith in a sea to split to achieve the freedom and redemption they desired.
It is October 2019 in Cleveland. I stand before you five months into a big fight I am having with cancer. I very much want to stand before you in the future as a survivor. The roughest part of this fight may be over or it may lie ahead. I don’t know. No clarity has arisen as to why this hawk is chasing me. But tonight I am standing in the cleft of the rock, in our sanctuary.
Tonight I will make you a promise that I’ll never ask to be pardoned or absolved at Kol Nidre. Here it is: I am not giving up. I am not giving up on redemption. I am not giving up on hope. I will not give up when snake-life fears threaten me. I will admit it out loud, so someone can respond. If there is a God, then God will know where I am. If there is no God, I’ll believe in doctors, nurses and caregivers doing and acting on “what is most right.”
I am afraid, terrified even. But I am not giving up. For this summer, the worst one in my life thus far, my daughter introduced me to a song that uplifts me every time it is played. The song is by recording artist Andy Grammer. The lyrics include the following words: “I’m not giving up. no not me, even when they say there’s nothing left, even when I’m down to my last breath. I’m not giving up, even when nobody else believes. No, I’m not going down that easily. So don’t give up on me.”