April 19, 2024 /

The Breath of God – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781

Every year during the summer Alyson and I usually take the boys up to a place called The Chautauqua Institute. It’s in Upstate New York and it’s where my in-laws, Beth and Les, spend their summers. I like to describe the Institute as summer camp for adults. The Institute, was founded in 1874 as a vacation learning center for Sunday School teachers. However, it was successful and broadened almost immediately to become a place of learning for anyone. The Institute envisions a world made better by uniting people through education and substantive thought and debate. It would be perfectly normal to have a speaker’s series where Gov. Jeb Bush is giving a lecture one day and Rev Jesse Jackson the next. Cars aren’t allowed on property, and the property itself is massive, gated-in and has with hundreds of homes and many restaurants. Kids ride their bikes around freely and drop them on the ground when they get to where they’re going without worrying about theft and everything is just peaceful. It has been a great place for our family to recharge.

Last year as we were leaving we felt a bit of sadness, because we were afraid that it might become harder to visit. You see it was becoming clearer that Alyson would be starting a new job as an assistant director of one of the Reform Movement’s summer camps. If she were to take on this new job, which she did, the timing might not have worked in a way that would enable us to come up during their summer season. But then there was this little thing called COVID-19, and it changed a lot of what was going on in society, in particular for things like sleep away camps. Now, thanks to the virus, we could go back up.

However, this year when we went up none what I just described was able to occur. All of the Institution’s lectures where online rather than in-person and the property was deserted. So instead, we took day trips. The first trip we took was to Cleveland to see where my father and his family came from. As we head to the highway that takes you straight to Ohio we came up over a hill and saw a glimpse of Lake Erie which seemed to stretch out forever. When Gavin, my 7-year-old, saw it his eyes widened and went, “wow.” We got on I90 and drove from New York, through Pennsylvania and then into Ohio. As we were getting closer to Cleveland we went over another hill and were able to glimpse Lake Erie to our right and Gavin looked out and saw it and asked, “What lake is that?” Les, my father-in-law respond, “It’s the same one as the one before.” “No way,” Gavin said, “oh my God, that lake is huge!”

Our first stop was to The Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland. Buried there are not only the likes of President Garfield, and J.D. Rockefeller, but also my much of my family that was from that area. We eventually found their graves and Gavin walked over and looked at simple footstone of Newton McKean and said, “Hey Dad, he has the same middle name you do.” For those of you wondering what the “N” stands for, you now know that it’s “Newton.” Actually, now it’s Newton-Adler because after Alyson and I got married we hyphenated our middle names with her maiden name. Back to Cleveland, “Yes Gavin, your right. Come over here. This is you Great Grandfather, John N. Bazeley. He has the same middle name that I do, and we are both named after Newton McKean.” He looked down again at Newton’s footstone and asked, “Who was he?” “Gavin, this is your Great, Great, Great Grandpa.” “Wow,” he said. “Is 1844 the year he was born?” “Yes, it is.” “So, this means he died in 1916, that’s 100 years before Matthew was born. Oh my God, that was so long ago, wow.”

We then drove into Shaker Heights and went to where my Grandparents and Great Grandparents lived. We showed the boys the house that my Great Grandfather had built. I must admit, it looked smaller than I remembered. The last time I was there was probably 1994. We drove down the block to the playground that my father and I would go to all the time when I was a child. It had been completely redone. They removed all the high monkey bars and the gravel you would fall into as well as the giant metal slide that burned to the touch even in the winter and they replaced it with plastic slides and playsets mounted over inches of foam. Much to Matthew, my 4-year old’s, dismay we couldn’t play there, it was closed due to COVID. But it was still cool to see. It was then back to Chautauqua, only getting out of the car once the entire trip to put stones on the graves at the cemetery.

The next day we drove the opposite way to Niagara Falls. As we went over the bridge to Buffalo Gavin asked in a surprisingly sarcastic tone for a 7-year-old, “I’m sure you are going to tell me this is the same lake as yesterday.” “Well Gavin…” in the tone any father loves to use to prove sarcasm wrong, “…it is. All the water that we are going to see today is all Lake Erie, even the water going over the falls.” “Wow” Gavin declared. When we got to Niagara Falls the only thing Gavin could do was stand mouth a gap and go, “wow.” Matthew on the other hand grabbed me and wouldn’t release. He got on my shoulders and said, “Don’t let me go, I might do something I shouldn’t.” He is our daredevil but it’s matched with a reasonable amount of fear.

For years we had been musing over taking these trips and yet we never did. We could never find the time or the reason. There was always something else pulling at us. I have been following so many of you on Facebook and so many of you seem to have also had these moments as well. Quarantined for months and when the opportunity arose, you “got out of Dodge” to commune with nature and you found something awe inspiring that you wouldn’t have otherwise. At the same time though, you also found yourselves surrounded by misery and confusion. Many of us have been stuck between those two extremes since March. The isolation the sorrow and the pain that affected New Jersey because of the pandemic, but also an abundance of love and appreciation and gratitude for new experiences and things that you would have missed otherwise.

I have seen so much pain and suffering these last six months so many of us had to say goodbye to loved ones through FaceTime or Zoom. So many of us could not attend funerals in person, could not embrace their family with love and affection and a hug. So many of us got used to a world of zoom shivas. None of us could have possibly anticipated that this is what life could have been like a year from last Rosh Hashanah.

And yet in this era of social distancing many of you are saying you’re feeling more connected to your community than ever before. We are doing new things through the internet and technology. And let me reassure you that when this virus passes, we won’t be giving up these new ways of connecting with you. COVID is a curse, but the ways we have been connecting with you is a blessing.

In the Book of Deuteronomy as Moses is saying goodbye to the Israelites he puts in front of them the ability to choose between blessings and curses. Following mitzvot would mean having a life of blessings and ignoring them would mean a life of curses. And how is it that we can live a life of blessings? Moses sums it up in more words than this, but it’s essentially to be kind to one another and to let God into your life.

We have many euphemisms for the name of God: God, Adonai, Hashem. God’s true name is ineffable. In Hebrew it is spelled יהוה. Traditionally, the name could only be spoken by the High Priest during Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies. When we see the word written down, we just pronounce it as Adonai. The actual pronunciation has been lost to the ages and while many have theorized how it’s pronounced; we don’t have any recordings. There is one theory, though, that I love. It takes into account that the letter יהוה are all aspirate consonants which means they are not quite consonants, but also not quite vowels and when you try to say these letters, all strung together without the vowel markers, all you get is the sound of breath. Think about the letter Y H U H. How might they sound if you tried to say them as a solid word? It would just be breath. I must admit I always thought that was kind of hokey until Gavin with all of the wonder that he saw in those few days – all the history, the nature, the experience of new things – came with this breath of awe. And it sounded to me as if he was stating, “Oh God, look at this miracle in front of me.”

There was God, right there with us, name uttered and all as we drove around and experienced all these new things. What a blessing. What a blessing we received over those days – all thanks to the virus. Yet that was not the only time I heard that name for God. I heard it in the deep sobs and wails as relatives died in isolation due to the virus. I heard in in the pain a child felt as their parent died alone unable to be visited by loved ones. I heard the name of God breathed in despair as you wondered aloud with me how you would survive the furlough or job loss or make it one more day as a stay at home parent and fulltime employee at the same time.

There is a duality here between blessings and curses. Working from home isn’t easy, and many of you have told me that. Some of you have referred to it as a curse. Fulltime employee, but also fulltime mom and fulltime teacher. The expectations are high, unwavering, and full of contradictions, conflicts, and double standards.

However, many of you have also told me that despite that curse it’s also been a blessing. Getting to see a child ride a bike for the first time when that would have ordinarily been missed or discovering a love of outdoor hiking with family or finally taking that trip you always wanted to do, but never did because life was in the way. This virus reminds us that blessings and curses are held together in opposite hands of the same body. Moses gave us a choice between blessings and curses, but life is never that simple and often we have to hold two extremes together that live in constant contradiction.

Yes, blessings and curses exist simultaneously, but we can push the level of balance towards blessings by choosing the way we act. When we choose blessings, it means that we are choosing kindness to others. God asks us to love mercy, to live righteously, and to be humble.

The name of God is the sound of breath. In Hebrew the word for breath is neshama, which also means soul. And another Hebrew word for soul is nefesh. When we say that we’re trying to protect a life we say Pikuach Nefesh, which means the preservation of soul. But it could also, in a nuanced way, mean the preservation of breath. Nefesh, neshama, soul, breath, God. All interlinked. It is as if to say that when we protect somebody’s life, somebody’s breath, we are also protecting God because our soul is the breath of God within us. That is in fact how God first brought life to Adam, by breathing into his nostrils. It is a reminder that God is within every single one of us.

I bring this up my friends, because when I look out at our society, what I see is a supreme lack of kindness. I admit, I was so naive at the beginning of this pandemic. I was naive not because I thought this was going to pass by and disappear, which I did. I was not naive because I could not imagine anything as disastrous as it was and still is, it’s still hard to fathom 180,000 dead Americans. I was naive because I thought this would bring us closer together. I thought that this virus which is respiratory and has taken away the breath of God from so many people, would pull us closer together. I really thought and I really hoped that we would bond together because of this. And it did for a little while. And then masks became political and then social distancing became political and vaccines and treatment and all aspects of this virus suddenly became fodder for politicians and our very lives were, and still are, being held in the balance.

Protecting our lives and the lives of other human beings should be seen as if we’re protecting God because God’s breath and God’s name is held within every moment of our lives. There is another name, another euphemism for God’s name which is HaMakom which means “The Place.” There is a midrash that tells us that wherever we let God in, that place Makom can become holy no matter where it is. As you breathe you can be the Makom because you have the ability to let God in and be a divine and holy creature depending on how you act. And what does God ask of you? God wants your acts of kindness towards everyone. Everyone. It is it is as if this virus is the antithesis of God for it takes away our breath, but it has also taken away our soul because the amount of kindness in this world has decreased because of it. I don’t know why this pandemic hasn’t brought us all together. We now seem further apart than we ever were, and it brings me a great deal of sadness.

But as God also reminds us, the ability to do these mitzvot are still within our grasp they are not too lofty that we cannot reach them. I don’t have an answer as to how we do it. I’m not sure how we come closer together and if that is something that is still obtainable, although, I pray that it is and I refuse to give up hope. I do think that it starts with a breath, with the utterance of God’s name. A breath that cools our heads and calms the mind. A breath that gets us to pause and wonder where the other is coming from. A breath to remind us that God is in between us; that God resides in this place… in this Makom. That we each have the ability to be Divine Creatures and that at any time we can return to that path – so let us return right now.

We are all created in the Divine Image. And we all utter God’s name every moment of our lives as we breathe. Rosh Hashana is about new beginnings. It’s about cheshbon hanefesh looking inside of ourselves so that we can move forward properly and not just ourselves but our community as well. We do it through breath and through choosing kindness and hope and blessings. May each one of us choose kindness rather than anger, choose kindness rather than hate and choose kindness and life rather than death. It’s only through kindness that we will come out of this together and as one. Amen v’amen