Rabbi Mark Shapiro – April 28, 2019
The congregation was big and especially in the Fall during the Jewish High Holidays every seat was taken. So many people would come to worship that the synagogue even put seats in the downstairs auditorium and held a parallel service for about 800 people.
So it was one Rosh Hashanah morning that a bomb threat was received and the congregational leaders decided that the synagogue building had to be evacuated in the middle of the service. The rabbi in the sanctuary asked everyone to leave quietly and quickly. The rabbi downstairs in the auditorium did the same and within no more than 15 minutes the building was empty.
Only one problem: Just before the evacuation an older gentleman excused himself to go to the restroom. As matters unfolded it took the gentleman some 15 minutes to finish in the bathroom, which he did, only to walk back into the auditorium and see…not 800 people…but no one!
Was it magic? Was he dreaming? Not a soul to be seen!
Of course, his family did return to rescue him, but during those minutes of waiting, can you imagine? 800 human beings had disappeared! I tell you that story because it came to mind last weekend when the bombings took place in Sri Lanka. Three churches and three hotels. Hundreds dead and hundreds wounded. Gone. Disappeared. Can you imagine? It wasn’t a dream with a happy ending; it was a nightmare. I thought about Sri Lanka exactly one week ago on Easter Morning. I was driving through Longmeadow and saw people walking to church for the 10 a.m. service. Men and women dressed up. Little children looking so adorable in their “Sunday best.” They approached the church, hopped up the stairs, and slipped into their big, bright, safe sanctuary. It was so easy and pleasant. So comfortable. Except some people would argue it was not at all natural. A friend commented to me last week that it seemed to him pain and chaos are the “natural” components of the human experience. The sun does shine, but, my friend claimed, clouds obscure the sun as much as they let it shine through. Clouds are the norm. Humanity’s inability to get along is the norm. Darkness is what characterizes most of the human experience. I hated hearing my friend’s condemnation. I hated reading about Sri Lanka. But I have to admit there is something true about reading human experience as a tale of mainly darkness and strife. If that weren’t so, I don’t believe this Cathedral would recently have invested in more cameras and more locked doors. If life was altogether sweet, my own congregation, Sinai Temple, wouldn’t have locked its doors recently during business hours, installed a camera at the front door, and a buzzer to let people into the building. As a Jew, it doesn’t take too much imagination to read history with some fear.
My Toronto synagogue story took place because people who hated Israel wanted to get even with Jews by bombing a synagogue. Years ago, when Marsha and I travelled through Europe one summer, I remember how difficult it was to visit synagogues in various cities. Why? They had armed guards and, unless you could prove your innocent intentions, you couldn’t just walk into the building. The same was true that summer when we wanted to visit a place in Vienna which was helping Soviet Jews as they escaped from the Soviet Union. This was the kind of project I had advocated for over all my college years in Toronto. No matter. In Vienna, the place was on lockdown. No strangers (even Jewish strangers) allowed! It was too dangerous. Not that long ago, Marsha and I were in Paris on a Friday night. We wanted to go to Sabbath services, and I had the address of a Reform synagogue to attend. Should have been easy, right? Not so. We had to call ahead. We had to give our passport num bers to the office. Only then…after they checked us out…did we receive permission to enter their building that Friday evening. Danger. Fear. Who can you trust? Can you trust anyone? And so it goes for much of the human story. You can’t take goodness for granted; you’ve got to be on the lookout. A sorry circumstance. An unfortunate reality. Except you probably suspect that I don’t live my life so darkly. In fact, as you probably suspect, I would hate for any of us to live with such darkness or fear or anger. And I don’t do so because Judaism won’t let me give in to despair. Consider Passover which opened a week ago Friday evening with the great Jewish meal called the Seder. On the one hand, you couldn’t find a darker story than the story recalled during the Seder. As the Seder prayerbook – the Haggadah – declares, “We were slaves to Pharaoh.” It was bitter and miserable. One of the necessary foods to be eaten at the Seder is called Maror, which means bitterness. It comes in the form of a horseradish root which is hard and unpleasant. If you want misery, the Egypt story serves it up grandly. There is even a point in the Haggadah where participants read that oppression has been the lot of Jews not once in Egypt, but again and again over the ages. Pharaoh was only the first in a long line of oppressors. And here’s what happens when that recollection is read. Those present hold up their wine glasses, read the sad text, and then put down the wine glasses. Not a sip of wine. Nothing to take away the bitterness. But here’s the genius of the Haggadah. Only a few pages later the book returns to remember Egyptian slavery AND the liberation from slavery. Then the text proclaims that, as formidable as our adversaries have been, we have survived. We have overcome the danger. And we have in many, many circumstances been blessed to thrive. At which point, the Haggadah asks everyone present to life the cup of wine again and this time to drink from it! Enjoy. Life can be good.
In fact, let me share with you what I do at our Shapiro Seder when we get to this point in the Seder. Before we read the text that thanks God for our blessings, I ask everyone present to think about his or her own life and to share with all of us at the table a blessing that has touched him or her recently. We did it this year and people gave thanks for personal health, for the health of others, for the presence of children, for the presence of grandchildren, for a spouse, for success in a project at work, for professional recognition, for a new house and so on. You see, it turns out that when people are asked to search for blessings, they find them. When people are asked to search for sunlight, they do search and they do find it. Consider this. The Passover Seder often took place around the time of Easter. (This year the two festivals literally coincided.) When this happened, Passover often became a dangerous time for Jews. People who had been to Church and read about the Crucifixion often wanted vengeance. Attacking Jews was not unusual during Passover. Little wonder that Jews kept their doors closed and locked during the Seder. It literally was a dangerous occasion. And yet, guess what custom is part of every Seder? At one point during the evening, Jews must open the door of the house. Isn’t that foolish? An open door risks the entry of an enemy. But Jews open the door and, when they do so, they pray that Elijah, the biblical prophet of old, will enter the home to take a sip of wine set aside for him. Why Elijah? Because, according to Judaism, Elijah is the prophet who will announce the coming of the Messiah someday. As dark as the night may be, Judaism asserts here that it is never too dark for the Messiah. It is never necessary to give up on a better future. And so it goes with the Seder. There are so many reasons to despair about life, nevertheless the Seder insists that life is worthwhile. I think it was Annie in the musical bearing her name who insisted, “The sun will come out tomorrow.” Or hear it in these sentences which come towards the beginning of the Seder: Our story moves from… GNUT L’SHEVACH…from degradation to praise… From slavery to freedom…from darkness to light. I think Anne Frank, a teenager locked into an Amsterdam attic during the Holocaust, may have put the matter more courageously than I can almost imagine. But here are her words from out of her isolation: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
And that’s my sermon. That’s my conviction. Tough as life can be, I believe. Dark as our experience can be, I hold on.
Even with the tragedy of Sri Lanka and so many other sadnesses, I can’t convince myself to give up. “If I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right.” Not simply. Not obviously. But I think it can come out right. There are more blessings than curses. And if on occasion the balance seems off (too many curses and not enough blessings), then I’ve got to hold on. Search for a blessing. Make a blessing. That’s why even the Easter story doesn’t end with the Crucifixion. It only concludes with the Resurrection. Dark gives way to light. Pain gives way to hope. That’s where we always need to be going. Towards hope. It’s a very Jewish…a very Christian…way to travel through life.