Two weeks ago many of us had our lives go topsy-turvy as water encroached on our homes and our workplaces to one degree or another. I know this is still a very raw subject and that many of you are struggling. I want to keep repeating this message to make sure everyone hears it – WJC is here to support any and all of you with comfort, prayers, financial help, and schleppers, as needed. Just let us know and we are here for you. My family and our home also felt the impact of the floodwaters. Thank God, we are all physically okay and the impact on our home is not too terrible (I know others have fared much worse,) but I want to tell you a little about my experience of that night because I learned something important from it and I believe it may be valuable to you too. Okay, trigger warning given.
At 11:00pm we discovered about 1 inch of water in our basement that was rapidly increasing and spreading. The sump pump was doing its job, but the water was finding its way in through holes in the foundation where the floor meets the wall. We called Elijah, our oldest, into action and we went to work with shop-vacs and towels. We worked at it for hours and we were making progress. And I was keyed up, my mind on high alert, looking for anything we might be missing, some way to stay ahead of the water. And we did, we got the water level in the basement to basically nothing, though it took constant vigilance and attention, all the while the whirring of the sump pump in the background assured us it was doing its part to keep the water at bay. I was convinced that if we just worked hard enough and were smart enough, we were going to beat this thing.
At 1:30 in the morning, we were taking a breath, re-rolling our soaked pant legs, and strategizing next steps. Then we were strategizing next steps in the dark – the power went out. The shop-vacs stopped, and worse, so did the whirring – no sump pump. By flashlight, I saw the water level in the pump’s pit rising, and rising fast! It was no longer a question of “can we avoid being flooded?” It was now only a question of “how high is this water going to get?” We turned our attention to raising up as many things as we could – our couches on big plastic totes, an electronic drum kit found a new home balanced on top of the foosball table, cardboard boxes of puzzles and games on higher shelves. Finally, at 2:30 in the morning, after three and a half hours of hard work and focused attention we looked around the room and then at each other. “That’s it.” I said, “There is nothing else we can do. It’s a lost cause. I’m so tired. Let’s go to bed and however much water there is in the morning, we’ll deal with it.” The house had no power and we were powerless to act.
You would think I’d be upset, and I suppose I was. But when I realized that there was nothing else to do, when I let go and admitted I had no control over this situation, when I surrendered to the world as it is and not how I want it to be – the majority of what I felt was actually profound relief. I was genuinely surprised as I felt the tension and adrenaline drain from my body and a sense of calm come over me even though I knew there would be damage in the morning. It didn’t seem to make any sense, but I felt like it was important to understand. So, I did what rabbis do when we have puzzles like this – I looked for a source that could explain it. Days later I started my search and I found the following beautiful words of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, known as the Besht.
The Besht taught his students a three-step process for (Keter Shem Tov #96), facing terrible things in the world, or just the everyday disappointments that inevitably arise in life. The first step is Hachna’ah or surrender, next comes Havdalah, which in this case means discernment, and finally Hamtakah or Sweetening. Little did I know it, but in that moment of surrender in my basement, feeling ridiculous – 2000 years of rabbinic heritage resting on my shoulders and here I was impotent to act, standing in two inches of water, with pruny, wet feet and my pajama pant legs rolled up around my knees, thinking to myself, “What would Rabbi Akiva say if he could see me now!” And then I let all that go – the shame of helplessness, the fight against nature – and what I had discovered was the first step of this powerful three-step process. I want to explore this three-step process today because we seem to be inundated with difficulties and disappointments and many of us are suffering from the emotional burden these create.
And to be honest with you folks, I’m worried about you. And I’m worried about myself. I got away for a couple of weeks this summer and I was shocked to realize from that distance how damaged I was from this last year and a half. And I suspect that you are too and like me, you may not even know it, because we put forth strength and walls to protect ourselves, but the damage is there anyway. I think I hope, I believe, this process can help.
Each step is better understood with a guiding question. The first step, hachna’ah is surrender, and the question that helps us understand this step is “How important is what’s happening right now to the essence of how God wants me to be in the world?” Too often we get caught up in the trappings of life, of how we think things should go, but the guiding question of hachna’ah reminds us that God has a plan for the world and a purpose for us in that plan.
So, on that evening I realized somewhere deep inside that we could weather this disaster. Sure, it will be difficult, it will involve material loss, but when I surrendered to my real purpose, to what God intends for me to do, I realized that this won’t have that big an impact in the grand scheme.
Now that doesn’t mean the loss isn’t painful – I’m not saying surrender is easy, but it is a real thing and it is a valuable perspective at moments like this. Surrender can be the bravest act, an act of extreme faith, a willingness to accept that tomorrow will come, and though we might not like what it looks like, we will manage because we have each other and because we have faith in a purpose given us by a higher power and that God cares about our suffering.
When we came down in the morning, we had about 4-inches of standing water in the basement. We will lose it as the room where our children go on Shabbat and other days to bond and play with each other (and sometimes torture each other) and that’s where we host overnight guests for Shabbat and holidays so our ability to do that will be compromised as the sheetrock is cut and our floor replaced, and we know this is not so bad compared to some – at least two families in the shul will be unable to live in their homes for a while and there are so many more like them. But this is not a comparison game – whatever you may have lost, a lot or a little, that loss is important to recognize and not explain away because others have it worse. even you didn’t lose anything material in the flood, but you’ve spent the last two weeks driving up and down Mamaroneck Avenue and seeing the piles of possessions and rotting building materials piled in giant mounds – the assorted everything of peoples, lives being grabbed in the giant claw of an excavator and loaded in to dump trucks to go to the landfill – people’s whole material lives reduced to trash – how can we see that an not be affected and not have your heart crushed? Maybe what you lost was your sense of control and safety. We all lost that and the loss is real. Surrender and acceptance of the loss along with the knowledge that we still have a purpose, a reason to go on that has nothing to do with the material loss, is step one.
And once we’ve found that sense of surrender, we can move on to steps 2 and 3.
The second step is Havdalah. You may recognize this word from the service that separates Shabbat from the rest of the week and that is the meaning here too – to separate. In this case, separating out what is important in our lives and what is noise. So, the guiding question for Havdalah is “Am I on the path God intended for me or am I fighting my purpose?”
In the flood, we lost a beautiful, framed professional baby picture of Tami’s mother z’l that fell into the water. It was a precious possession a window into her life long before we knew her and long before we lost her. Losing those sentimental treasures, those irreplaceable heirlooms, it hurts. And I know many of us lost lots of them, because that’s what you keep in the basement and crawl spaces. But when I stopped to discern and look for what really mattered and what was noise, I realized that what mattered is the relationship we shared and the love that remains, even though she is gone for many years already. The picture represented that, but the truth is in our hearts and can never be lost from there. That discernment of what really matters is havdalah.
The third step, Hamtakah or sweetening, helps us to look forward. The guiding question of this step is “How can I use ritual and reflection to collect the sweetness of life and focus on that rather than the difficulties?”
Even in my basement the night of the flood and the next morning, not only did I find surrender in understanding that some things I just cannot control, and discernment in recognizing what really matters, but the task ahead became clear, our community would need help to recover from this and yes, there is sweetness in seeing how we have come together, how generous people have been, how dedicated to making a difference for one another, even when we are ourselves hurting. There is sweetness in the rituals and practices of hesed taught by our faith and in knowing we are not alone, and my friends, you are not alone.
Now that we are familiar with the process of the Ba’al Shem Tov we can see it throughout Jewish life and practice. In fact, the rituals of this day, Yom Kippur, and especially The Yizkor Memorial service, perfectly demonstrate these steps of Hacna’ah, Havdalah and hamtakah. On Yom Kippur, we begin from a place of Hachna’ah, of surrender. We come here to stand humbly before God. We demonstrate our surrender by recognizing our mortality and praying to be sealed in the Book of Life. How much more surrendered can we get than to admit that we have no control over our very lives? And then we do Havdalah and ask ourselves, “Am I on the path that God intended for me?” We do Heshbon HaNefesh, a review of our past year to begin to truly discern and take the very measure of our life.
And then comes Hamtakah. You would think that at the end of a full day of reflecting on the pride and the shame that make us who we are, we’d be miserable – but that’s not the case at all. If we do Yom Kippur right, at the end of the day we feel joy, we feel relief. (And don’t kid yourself – the joy isn’t just because you are finally eating a bagel with a shmear. It’s something deep down inside.) Having taken a careful, honest accounting of who we are and the reality of our finite lives, the rituals of the day help us collect all those sweet bits and hold them dearly for another year to come, to fortify us to walk our path and stick to our purpose. In reality, Yom Kippur is itself a one-day ritual for sweetening the other 364 days of the year. That’s what we are doing here today.
We see the same pattern in the ritual of Yizkor. At this moment, we surrender to grief and memory and accept the fact that being mortal means loss will be part of our lives. That is a bitter pill to swallow, but only once we find that place of acceptance can we truly discern the lives of those we remember today, to sort through the love they brought into the world and the relationships they fostered, the accomplishments that mattered, the person they truly were and the sweet legacy that remains because they were here and because they were ours because we were part of their purpose and they are part of ours. That’s hamtakah – the Yizkor ritual guides us to the sweet treasures amidst the muddle the lives of those we remember and we collect those memories, those treasured teachings, to get us through another year without them.
This is, in fact, what much of Jewish ritual is about – recognizing the world for what it is, a holy, but incomprehensible balagan, a mess, and using rituals and sacred moments to suck every drop of sweetness and beauty, of holiness and purity, of light and hope, from the chaos. Yom Kippur is a microcosm of Judaism and of life – recognize the mess and use ritual and wisdom to discover and focus on the beauty in that mess.
That is not to say any of this is easy – I promised you wisdom, I didn’t promise you easy – the two rarely come together. That’s why we need the guidance of our rituals to manage through difficult times and focus on the joy and beauty that still remains. Jewish tradition with its fixed times and fixed rituals, prods us to move forward with joy and beauty in our hearts, sensing the holiness in our lives.
With everything going on I know that some of you are feeling disconnected from your Jewish self and from this place. Who can blame you? Others have found their way, but can always use more guidance, especially in times like these. So, I invite you, come sit with me. Or, I’ll come to sit with you – I’ve been to many of your backyards over the last year and a half – they’re lovely, I’m happy to come. Or let’s meet halfway and go for coffee – I love coffee (and boy I miss it right about now). Let’s go through these steps, these questions, together and find our way forward together. And in the meantime, while we are trying to find the opportune time to meet, here’s a piece of advice – Do more Jewish! Not because you feel guilty, not because your rabbi is badgering you too, but because it will actually make you feel better. It will actually make your life better. That’s what it is for – I can’t make you a better offer than that! Let’s do more Jewish here at the shul or at home or out in the community through acts of hesed which are so desperately needed just now. These rituals, these set times, really do give us the ability to live life more meaningfully and with more beauty. Let’s use them!
May we all have the strength to ask these core questions:
And may we follow the wisdom of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s steps, surrendering to God’s purpose for us and by doing so, recognizing what is truly important in life – how we can get on and stay on that path – making a difference in the world the way God intends, and may we use our beautiful tradition to collect every single drop of sweetness this world has to offer us, and let us say, amen.