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Rabbi Bennett’s Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Posted on September 8, 2021 by Congregation Shaare Emeth

We apologize for the premature conclusion to our Erev Rosh Hashanah online stream. Here is the full text of Rabbi Jim Bennett’s sermon, which was cut off at the end of the stream:

Hope: The Ghost Light of Judaism

“What do we owe to ourselves, to each other, and to the next generation?  We owe each other this: To matter, to know that we all are enough, to believe that we each have worth.  This is the gift we can give each other now – the present of the future. A future that is filled with hope and blessing and light.”

With these words, I concluded my Rosh Hashanah sermon two years ago. Little did I know then – little did any of us know then – in the idyllic “pre-pandemic world of our memories,” what the next two years would bring, how difficult it would be to find hope, blessing, and light.

There is a darkness hovering over us, as we try to remember what it was like to not worry every time we leave our homes, to not have to wear masks, to not need to socially distance, to not be constantly afraid for the health and well-being of our loved ones and ourselves. All of us sadly know people who have suffered great illness during this pandemic; many of us mourn some of the more than 650,000 Americans, not to mention more than 4.5 million people worldwide, who have died during these painful past two years. The illness, anxiety, fear, suffering, anger, the divisiveness, have made this a sad, and suffocatingly dark year and a half. In such darkness there is uncertainty. We lose sight of ourselves, we lose sight of each other, and especially, we lose sight of faith and hope.

When I was in middle school, I was first introduced to the writing of Kurt Vonnegut, the great contemporary American novelist and thinker. His brilliant writing inspired a generation, the very generation in which I came of age. In his novel, Cat’s Cradle, the narrator and main character, John, reflecting on the ultimate consequences of the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, decides to write a book about the end of the world.  Believing this act to be the result of humanity’s utter stupidity, John stumbles across a book named: “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?”

John is anxious to read it, but when he does, it doesn’t take him long. For the entire book consists of just one word, followed by a period: The word “Nothing.”

Vonnegut revealed what many were thinking then, and more than half a century later, what many believe today: that there is no hope. In the darkness we wonder if we are doomed. Global Pandemic, Climate change and global destruction, war, civil unrest, political divisiveness, hatred, prejudice and so many other destructive forces make us want to abandon hope to a hopeless universe. My message on this Rosh Hashanah is that nothing could be more wrong. There is hope, there has always been hope, we must choose hope. For we, essentially, are a people of hope – a hopelessly hopeful people.

We have known more than our share of darkness and hate, and yet, as we gather here for this Rosh Hashanah, I want to speak not of darkness and hate, but rather, of light and of love, and of hope. I am convinced as never before that we need more light, more love, more hope, and that our congregational community is uniquely positioned to bring all of these into a world that sorely needs them. Especially hope. Hope, you see, that depends on us.

“To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote. “The whole of Judaism is. . . designed to create in people, families, communities and a nation, habits that defeat despair. Judaism is the voice of hope in the conversation of mankind.”

Judaism is the voice of hope. We are the agents of hope. Hope depends on us. Hope is why we are still here.

Sometime last winter, months ago, as this interminable pandemic continued to rage and keep us all away from public places like our beloved Temple, when we were working mostly remotely, I came to Temple one evening to pick up some things I had left in my office. I could tell I was alone by the empty parking lot and the darkness that hung over the building. I unlocked the doors and turned off the alarm, I felt the quiet and emptiness of the building embrace me like a warm blanket around my shoulders.

The building was silent, and a lonely feeling fell upon me.  I imagined the sound of children’s voices from the hallways of the Religious School and Preschool. I glanced into the Library Conference room, imagining it full of students gathered for Torah Study.  I wandered past the silent Mindfulness Center, across to the Simcha Center and almost thought I heard the echo of the voices of Seniors assembled for a joyous luncheon. I was drawn to the Memorial Room where I felt, for just a moment, that I sensed a person or two meditating in memory of a loved relative. I approached the sanctuary and hoped that perhaps it would be filled with people just liked you, sitting together in prayer, song and hope.

Yet, like nearly every gathering place across the globe for the past year and a half, our building sat empty. Silent, dark, devoid of people. Devoid of you.

About this same time last winter, our future daughter-in-law’s parents had told me a story about the theaters on Broadway, which they serve through their dry-cleaning business. They recounted what many in the theater business know, that in every theater on Broadway, and in many theaters elsewhere, a single bare lightbulb burns constantly.  This light, since at least the late 1800’s, is known as the “Ghost Light.”

According to this tradition, the Ghost Light is a light, often a bare bulb, that stays on inside the theatre, even when the house is dark, when a show’s not going on, even when a show’s not even running. When the show ends and the theatre becomes dark, the light stays on so that the people that are visiting backstage taking care of the theater can see until the whole theater is lit again. Some say that these lights are lit so that the ghosts of the theater will have company and be able to move around freely, dancing and singing onstage, or perhaps to scare the ghosts away! Sadly, a lot of Ghost Lights have been burning on Broadway as in theaters everywhere for the past year and a half.

I couldn’t help but make the amazing connection as I wandered through the darkness of the Temple that dark wintery evening. I noticed a flickering, familiar glow – I knew, in fact, that I would see this light, I welcomed it as I entered the Stiffman sanctuary and looked up to see the shimmering Ner Tamid here above our beautiful ark. In the darkness, its glow illuminated the stone and pulpit below as shadows flickered and reminded me that much was as it should be, as it has always been, and hopefully, as it will always be.

This light represents an ancient flame, one that has burned in the midst of Jewish communities for more than 2000 years: “And you shall command the children of Israel to bring you beaten olive oil for lighting, to kindle a Ner Tamid – a light for all time.” (Exodus 27:20).

Today, we understand the Ner Tamid to mean the Eternal Light, often an artistically designed lamp above or beside the ark in our synagogues. We are taught that the Ner Tamid is a symbol of God’s eternal presence in our midst, but this year I discovered that the Ner Tamid is our Ghost Light. Whether our sanctuaries are filled with worshippers or whether they are empty—whether because we are voluntarily closed, or whether by necessity and fear, or whether our synagogues are empty because of apathy or neglect — our Ner Tamid glows and burns and waits for us like a faithful friend, until we are ready to return.

That wintry evening, seeing this light brought me great comfort. Even in the darkness of an empty, temporarily unused synagogue, the Ner Tamid burns with a glow that can be counted on.

For some, the Ner Tamid may seem like the lights inside our refrigerators, or the motion activated lights we mount outside our homes for security. From this perspective, the light of the Ner Tamid is there to illuminate things each time we come here.  When we return, we can count on it being here for us, reminding us of the light that is here whenever we enter this space. For some, our commitment to Temple, to our faith, to each other is like this. “It’s there when I need it,” we say. “That’s good to know. I am happy that I count count on it, and you, to be there for me when I need you,” we say.

But the amazing thing about the Ner Tamid, like the Ghost Lights on Broadway, is that it is ALWAYS on. Even when we are not there. Even when we don’t think we need it. Even when we don’t really seem to care if it is on or not. The incredible power of the Ner Tamid is that it is there for us whether always. Eternally. Just in case. And in spite of. And just because.  If you don’t believe me, drive by the Temple some evening after dark and you’ll see the glow of the Ner Tamid flickering through the windows. Don’t worry – it is an LED – it doesn’t use much energy, but it here, burning eternally when we need it and when we don’t, and especially when we think we don’t need it but really do.

“We’ll leave the light on for you,” Tom Bodett of Motel 6 fame used to say. Had I thought to say it, and had I known what these past nearly two years would bring, I would have said that to all of you at the end of the High Holy Days two years ago. I didn’t know then what we all know now, so I am saying it now:

The Ner Tamid reminds us, “We’ll leave the light on for you – we and our Jewish faith and values have been here, are here, and will be here when you need them and us. Because you matter, we matter, our community matters. Precisely because we need hope, and our gift to the world is our ability to hope.”

A visiting Church group once asked me what happens when the Ner Tamid goes out. I paused for a moment, before answering “we change the light bulb.” That is the truth. Nothing, even the Ner Tamid, is permanent. Sometimes things happen.  Lights go out. Pandemics and other disasters force us to close our doors, to pivot, to think outside the box. We face great challenges, like illness, hatred, prejudice, injustice and more. Even then, especially then, our tradition reminds us that we have the power to bring light through that darkness, to keep the light of hope burning, and yes, when necessary, to kindle the light once again.

And I’ll tell you a not-so-well-kept secret: Keeping the light on is not my responsibility alone, nor that of any one of the rabbis, the cantor, or that of any member of our Temple staff, nor our leadership, nor even any single one of you, our members.  Keeping the Eternal Light on, making sure that the light of hope remains a part of our lives, is up to us all. This light represents our faith, but more, it symbolizes our community- Your community- your support, your presence, your faith, your hope.

Tonight there is reason to hope. We have no choice but to hope. The Ner Tamid is still burning. The Ghost light has remained kindled all these months. All around us are signs of hope. Our Ner Tamid is one of those signs.

All of us, together, keep this light burning with hope. Your kind words, your notes and calls and messages of gratitude, your participation, even online, your generous donations to the congregation, your unfailing belief in our mission, our purpose, our vision of a better world – all of these and more have kept the light burning. When things have seemed so frustrating, so infuriating, so hopeless, you have been there for us, for each other, and for the community. You have inspired us all by your hopefulness and love.

Take a moment to think of the most inspiring stories you have heard throughout the past almost two years. Perhaps they are stories of selfless health care workers, generous employers, caring neighbors.  Many of these stories have caught the attention of the news media and have been reported extensively, but I would bet that most of these stories have been of people like so many of you, who have, without calling to attention yourself, simply done the right thing because you knew it was the right thing. You have clung to hope, you have done all you could to matter.

Near the end of his life, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described his message to the young people of his time, words that still ring true nearly half a century later: “Let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can—everyone—do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art.”

The American singer-songwriter Pete Seeger once said that “the key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

But “Optimism,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that we can make things better.”

Hope, you see, is up to us. Each of us can live lives of hope. Each of us can make things better. That is what we do. That is why we are here. This is what the Ner Tamid reminds us.

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld quotes a text known as the Itturei Torah and teaches that “Every person must light the Ner Tamid in her heart, and not only in the Tabernacle or the Tent, that is, in the synagogue or the school…. She must light it ‘outside the curtain’ – in the street or the marketplace….in all matters relating her to her fellow human beings.” The Ner Tamid demands that we carry this light of hope out of the synagogue into the world around us, and literally be what the prophets of old called “A light to the nations.” To live what we believe.

Throughout this pandemic, there have been many signs of light, of optimism, of hope.  Early on in 2020 I received a telephone call from Amy Wolff, founder of the movement that created the You Matter Signs.  She wanted to speak with me about the book she was writing.

We chatted about the fact that so many of you responded passionately to her message, putting up signs reminding others that “You Matter,” sharing these messages of hope and love, signs that I still see two years later as I drive around town.  She and I spoke several more times, and also corresponded by email, and eventually, a year later, I received a package in the mail. Inside, along with the promotional materials for the book, was this miniature sign and a copy of the book, “Signs of Hope,” with a note. “Rabbi Jim,” she wrote, “Our connection is one of my favorite surprise blessings from this movement.  Thank you for spreading hope AND for supporting my personal book! In this together, Amy.”

I am proud that we, Congregation Shaare Emeth, are featured in the final chapter of her book, entitled “In This Together.” Reflecting on what she had learned about our congregation’s embrace of her movement two years ago, Amy Wolff writes,

“A few weeks after Yom Kippur, we received this message from a member of Rabbi Jim’s synagogue:

“I recently learned about your awesome signs through my temple.  During our High Holy Day services, one of our rabbis did a sermon discussing mental health awareness and how he had learned about your signs.   They shared signs, bracelets, cards, etc. as we left the service.  As a pediatric nurse practitioner who often deals with children and teens with mental health concerns, I knew immediately I had to get some.  I got some cards from the temple, but I jumped online before we even left the parking lot and ordered two hundred wristbands, as I figured that would be the best option, especially for teens.  Yesterday I was wearing one of the wristbands as I sat through and appointment with a teenager who had just been in a car accident and was struggling with some suicidal thoughts.  I took the bracelet off, handed it over, and my patient put it right on.  I reminded the patient that even though they may feel like no one cares or that what they have going on right now is too stressful to deal with, they have lots of support and many people do care about them.  We talked about some of the positive things the patient has going on as well.  Fortunately, this patient is now getting the help they need and I think the bracelet will serve as a great reminder for them as they work through this challenging time!”

“Hope spreads. It’s contagious. It multiplies. Hope begets hope.”

This is how Amy Wolff concludes her book:

“This is how we build a flourishing world! This is how we survive devastating headline after devastating headline.  This is how we navigate our own apathy, despair, and anger due to tragedies, traumas, and setbacks. We do these things through loving action, one day at a time…. taking hope for ourselves when we need it and generously doling it out to others, holding on to hope for others when they don’t have the strength, and facilitating moments of sovereignty that bring profound healing and freedom.”

“We have the ability to be the good news.  We have the honor and privilege of doing this together. To do good together. To influence the world for the better. To let love win. We get to be signs of hope. Are you in?”

We are justice, compassion, kindness, truth, love, peace, and hope. Our Ner Tamid reminds us of this truth.  It has burned, like a ghost light, for generations. Together, in this New Year, may we continue to bring that light to each other and to the world. Shanah Tovah!

(for more info on Signs of Hope, by Amy Wolff: https://www.amynwolff.com/signsofhope) 

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