This past summer Vicky and I were in Seattle to teach at the Conference for Alternatives in Jewish Education –and to visit and spend time with one of our grandchildren (and their parents)! On one of our excursions, toward downtown, we spotted a large red banner on the front of a church: On it was the following slogan: “Don’t put a period where God has placed a comma.” “Don’t put a period where God has placed a comma.”
Naturally, it drew my attention – for two reasons: first: it was a brilliant publicity piece which called attention to the church. The second reason was that although the words caught my attention, I wasn’t even sure what it meant right away – and it caused me to ponder its meaning. “Don’t put a period where God has placed a comma.” By the way, it was such a great p.r. slogan that here I am, fully two months later, using it as a theme for Yom Kippur in a drash for Netivot Shalom in Berkeley!
This evening, I want to share with you some of my thinking about this sentence, and its connections with some texts in our tradition and in our new mahzor, the Tsunami, the hurricanes, the earthquake in Pakistan the flooding in Guatemala and our own shul community. Not to worry – I timed the drash – it’s 20 minutes - max!
Let’s start with a Psalm. Psalm 27 to be exact. Please turn to page 47 in the new mahzor. It’s the final psalm before adon olam or yigdal (and, of course, announcements). This new translation tries to capture the poetic form of the Psalm and it works in the English as a responsive reading. This Psalm breaks into three logical parts: the first (excluding the heading) is from the beginning to the indented verse in English that begins with the plea directed to the almighty: “God, hear my voice when I cry.” Let’s read that much responsively. [pause to read]
The theme of these first 6 verses is quite clear: These are words of assurance - the author is so full of joy at being on top of the world, that his only possible sin is that of hubris – too much of a feeling that he is all powerful. Let’s read the rest except the last verse: this time, you start: [pause to read]
Here, the theme is desperation – of a person who is at the bottom of a pit of exhaustion and desperation, screaming to God: What kind of a world is this? How do you and I relate to one another? And then there is the last line – let’s read it together in both the Hebrew and the English;
Kave el Hashem, hazak v'yaamatz libecha v'kave el Hashem.
Hope in God, be strong, take courage, and hope in God.
One phrase repeats twice: kave el Adonai, hope in God. ‘kave’ ‘ hope’ in the imperative form. And it brackets the words: ‘be strong, take courage’. Hope – have faith in God. Not a random or simple ‘hope’ but ‘hope in God’. Many commentators have claimed that this psalm is actually two psalms strung together because the two themes seem so disparate. I prefer to believe that it is a whole piece. As my colleague, Ben Segal writes: “… this Psalm offers us an unanswered challenge. Not a solution, a question to be dealt with… It challenges us by describing two contradictory situations … and a call for one understanding. It describes two well-known extremes of life: total assurance or belief, and a deep, almost incurable, despondency. Of these, the reader is to create one life of faith”. Perhaps that is the reason that this Psalm is the only liturgical piece that is read every single day from the beginning of Elul through Hoshana Raba – because that condition of feeling both assurance and despondency at the same time, exists in all of us. And, quite frankly, that’s where we find ourselves on the High Holydays. Check out the note on the right hand column – later! We don’t quite know what to make of this world and where we stand in space and time. And maybe the only thing we can say to ourselves is: “Don’t put a period where God has only put a comma.” Don’t believe for one moment, that either of these conditions describes the totality of human existence – hope in God enables us to put the comma in place and make it through life’s up’s and down’s.
Second: The Tsunami, the hurricanes, the earthquake and flooding. All of these calamities of nature – and in one year! And the theological questions most prevalent of course are: how could God allow this to happen? Where was God in the destruction of so many lives? The eternal questions. Many individuals, driven from homes, separated from family members and bereft of means of support, are surely anguishing over these questions, as Job did. Natural disasters.
And then there are the parallel questions in our own personal lives: our own personal crises, if you will. For each of us, over the course of a year, similar questions rise to the surface when we confront a death, a serious illness, loss of a job or divorce, to name just a few traumatic events. How do we make sense out of these challenges that life throws at us? We feel the need for an immediate answer in order to gain some comfort. We want to put a period all too quickly where there really needs to be a comma. When I am with a family after the death of a loved one, I often find that the mourners want to act swiftly on major issues – to sell the house, to relocate, to put closure immediately, to get answers right away to ultimate questions. Yet our tradition requires us to pause – to spend 7 days in intense mourning, to not make any decisions, and take 30 days in a gradual period of contemplation and reintegration into life and say kaddish. And then to repeat those words on every yahrtzeit and every time in the year that yizkor is said. Our tradition tells us: don’t rush. Don’t place a period. Keep the comma.
Maybe the lesson from both natural and personal disasters is the lesson of patience and the blessing of time. When something major and cataclysmic crashes into our world, we are simply too close. Just look how long it has taken us to deal with the holocaust – now more than half a century has passed, and we are still looking for answers. Yes, there certainly are times when we need to put a period and move on, but only from a distance can we truly discern God’s pattern. Only through reflection and patience and conversation can we begin to heal. We may in fact need to place a period, but not while we are still in the middle and too close.
As a congregant recently wrote to me: “A lot of things happen in life that are not so easy to either understand or handle. I have a mother who has always had psychological problems and is now geriatrically demented and a brother who is worried only about her inheritance. I keep saying this one sentence: "out of this, something good will come." Even at this time of the year, when forgiveness is on the agenda, I see myself as not such a forgiving person and I understand what this has "cost" me. But I am also learning that sometimes a road you didn't expect to take or want to take, added something to your personality or life that you needed to learn. I am trying to learn how to be slower in response so I am more thoughtful and to communicate without adding fuel to the unending fires of family friction.”
And there is yet another reaction that we as Jews have, and that is to act. When someone else feels the presence of a period, that is precisely the moment when acts of hesed, of compassion, of gemilutchasadim, of loving-kindness, and tzedakah come to be. We help people who are stuck at a period to replace it with a comma. And that is why acts of hesed for Darfur, for the Sudan, for victims of the hurricanes and the floods continue to require our attention and our action. And that is why we, here at Netivot Shalom, need to continue to be ever vigilant in performing these mitzvot for other congregants as well.
Don’t place a period where God has only placed a comma. Teshuva, the ability to return and reflect is the ultimate translation of that slogan into Jewish behavioral terms. 24 hours from now we will say Neila – the final service of Yom Kippur. Neila, short for Neilat Shearim, the locking of the gates will become the primary metaphor as we conclude our fast. It is in the waning moments of a day devoted to doing teshuva that we encounter so prominently the metaphor of gates. Gates are an extraordinary metaphor in two ways. The first is that there are so many of them – the gates of repentance; the gates of healing, the gates of blessing, the gates of joy, the gates of comfort, the gates of tzedakah, of justice, the gates of heaven to name but a few. There is one techina, a woman’s penitential prayer recited before Havdalah, that lists 65 different gates. The second thing to note about gates is that they don’t only close, they also swing open. Often they are opportunities for pausing and moving on just as much as they are for shutting and stopping. I find it fascinating that there are contradictory midrashim about teshuva and gates. In one place, it says that the Gates of Repentance are open even until Hoshana Rabba – at the very end of Sukkot. What began as a process one month ago in Elul concludes more than a month and a half later. Yet in another Midrash, we are told that one can seek teshuva up until the last moment of one’s life – but since we never know when that will be, it means that the gates are always open for immediate teshuva. And that teshuva is the self-corrective step in our life’s journey. It places a comma where otherwise we might have been stuck at a period.
Last Shabbat, Shabbat Shuvah, I spoke about our labyrinth in the courtyard at the Montessori school next door to our new home and the story of how it got there – and then, I suggested that people walk the labyrinth as a path of teshuva. A labyrinth is where all paths lead with some turns, to a center, in contrast to a maze which is like a riddle – with cul de sacs, dead ends, and no obvious way to get to the center. Frankly, I’m not sure which metaphor works better as a metaphor for our lives. Maybe both – maybe neither – maybe a combination of the two. From birth till death and maybe even beyond, we follow a path and try to find the best one for us. We, you and I, have the power to change some, but not all of the options.
On the first day of Rosh Hashana, Cathy spoke of a new understanding of the matriarch Sarah. A startling drash – one which clearly changed the way many of us now understand Sarah. On the second day, Lee shared remarkable insights into the relationship of a father and son. Cathy and Lee’s words reflected their own refusals to put a period where a comma was in order.
Finally, here we are as a congregation that is 16 years old. I remember that when we first began in 1989, none of us had in mind that we were forming a shul. We thought we were creating something of a minyan – a group of people who could worship together and participate equally. None of us could have imagined what we experienced on the Shabbat of June 3. We were supposed to be a minyan – that’s it. Thank God we decided not to put a period where God had placed a comma. We have a magnificent building thanks in no small part to many of you who are sitting here tonight. I remember the first time we met with a professional fund-raiser and discussed the possibility of raising enough money to build a synagogue. We were told: “you’ll never be able to raise enough money”. That moment could have been a period – but instead, we chose to make it a comma.
At the end of the book of Exodus (33:17 ff), Moses wants to see God’s kavod, God’s presence. God answers: “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Adonai, and the grace I grant and the compassion that I show. But you cannot see My face, because a person cannot see My face and live…See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back but My face must not be seen”. Carol Ochs writes “The rabbis commenting on the text understand it to mean that we can discover God in our lives only in retrospect, but cannot see where God will be in the future, or even where God is in the immediate present.”
My wish for you as we begin the year 5766: that you have an opportunity during the coming 24 hours to reflect on the year that has passed and to replace some periods with commas. In the coming year may you experience the hope that this can bring. So, where are we? In the same place as the Psalmist.
Kave el Hashem, hazak v'yaamatz libecha v'kave el Hashem.
Hope in God, be strong, take courage, and hope in God.
G’mar chatimah tova.