Rosh Hashanah 5777 - Gorban
Little Shlomo was so excited that he was finally old enough to go out with the sheep to be their shepherd. For years he had watched his older brothers argue over the duty, trying to avoid the responsibility and the hours of isolation and boredom. But Shlomo couldn’t wait for hours to play his flute and let his imagination run wild.
The day after his birthday, Shlomo’s brothers were arguing once again about who had to go out with the sheep. This time, little Shlomo jumped into the fray: “I’ll do it.” His brothers were stunned into momentary silence. David, the oldest, was the first one to recover. “You can’t do it,” he said. “You’re too young. You wouldn’t know what to do if something happened.” Shlomo’s other brothers chimed in, “And you’re too small. The sheep won’t be able to follow you.” “And don’t forget how sick you’ve been. You’ll never be able to walk all those miles and climb those hills.” “And what happens if a big, bad wolf comes? He’ll eat you up first!” With that, his middle brother, Aaron, pounced on him and tackled him to the floor.
Struggling to push his brother off, Shlomo was indignant. “I’m not too young. I’m the same age you all were when you began to go out with the sheep. And I’m not too small. The sheep know me better than they know any of you and they’ll follow me anywhere. And I’m not too sick. I’m just sick of being cooped up at home like the chickens. And wolves don’t scare me any more than any of you!” With that, he gave his brother a hard shove, stood up, and ran out of the house, grabbing his flute off the shelf by the door.
Shlomo ran straight to the sheepfold to let the sheep out for their day of grazing. He was greeted with happy bleats and a few nuzzles as he counted the sheep as they left the pen. For the better part of the glorious morning, Shlomo led the sheep through the countryside until they reached a grassy hill. While the sheep grazed, Shlomo took out his flute to play and think.
Suddenly there was a slight change in the air. Shlomo looked up, scanned the flock and noticed a little sheep wandering away—right towards a wolf. But the wolf wasn’t even looking at the sheep. Instead it was ready to pounce and looking right at Shlomo’s oldest brother, David. The fear in David’s eyes was clear, even from a distance. Shlomo knew that he had to act quickly.
He grabbed a few pebbles by his feet and ran quickly and quietly toward the wolf. Crouching behind a bush, Shlomo threw one of the pebbles at the wolf and blew sharply into his flute. Momentarily distracted, the wolf looked away just long enough for David to seek cover. Shlomo threw another pebble and gave a loud shout. This time the wolf turned to face the sound. David got the idea, picked up a pebble at his feet, threw it, and gave another shout. When the wolf turned, Shlomo ran to hide behind another bush before throwing another stone and blasting into his flute. Again and again, Shlomo and David threw pebbles at the wolf and shouted from different places. Until the wolf, fearing that it was surrounded, backed away and fled.
At the end of the day, when Shlomo and David got home with the sheep, David turned to Shlomo and said, “You saved my life today. When I saw that wolf looking at me, I just froze. But you knew exactly what to do to scare the wolf away. I may be bigger than you, I may be able to walk further than you, and I may be able to pick up a stubborn sheep, but none of that mattered when the wolf looked at me. Now I know—there are all kinds of strong.”
There are all kinds of strong. There’s strength of body and strength of mind, strength of spirit and strength of heart. Our character can be strong, as can our moral compass. And our talents, skills and interests give us strength in a various ways. David may have been physically strong, but Shlomo had the strength of mind and spirit to defeat the wolf and save his brother and his flock. Our strengths serve us in different ways, and sometimes, what seems to be a liability in one context can be a strength in another. Shlomo’s small size and quick-wittedness may have made him a target for his older brothers, but they were put to good use when brawn was more of a liability. And although David’s physical strength didn’t serve him well on this occasion, the strength of his love and newfound respect for his littlest brother allowed him to acknowledge the lesson he had learned. There are all kinds of strong.
And not only are there all kinds of strong, but each one of us is strong, each in our unique and essential way—no matter our size, shape, IQ, physical ability or disability, sex, gender identity or expression, or skin color. We are all strong and our varied strengths are valuable to our own lives and to the healthy functioning of our community. We need that heterogeneity in identity and strength to make us as a community strong.
So, what is strength? Strength is the ability to withstand or overcome great force and pressure. First, notice that it deals with our own abilities, not our disabilities, not our relative ability in comparison to that of someone else, and not our ability to knock someone else down. Shlomo’s brothers do not show strength when they belittle him or wrestle him to the ground. Strength—real strength—is what’s left when artifice and ego and facades are swept away. In many ways, strength is matter-of-fact, the way David acknowledged his strengths and Shlomo’s strengths without trying to claim that one is ultimately better than another. Strength is about who we are and what we can do.
One of the ways we show that ability is by withstanding great force or pressure. So many of us are under incredible pressure, from work or school, from family and friends, and from various groups, organizations, or activities that demand your presence, time, and money. And none of that takes into account the pressure we put on ourselves to meet our own expectations. Just to be here, in spite of all of those pressures, is itself a feat. And while some of us might need to work on loosening up our perfectionist tendencies or scaling back the frenetic pace at which we live our lives, most of these pressures are inherently good—we just have too much of a good thing and need to learn how to limit our commitments.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have to withstand a variety of pressures that lead us astray and lead us to do wrong. Who among us hasn’t fallen to the temptation to tell small lies about why we were late or who ate the last cookie (although in my house growing up it was who ate the last banana)? Who hasn’t stolen in little, innocuous ways, like claiming that a child is younger than they are in order to get discounted pricing or by downloading music or movies for free from unofficial sources? And who hasn’t shared even a minor secret from someone else or gossiped about people we know in order to be liked or to gain status? And those are only some of the small, everyday sins. With only minor consequences—if any at all—for these sins, we likely don’t even recognize how often we give in to the pressure to do them. Strength is NOT giving in to that pressure and temptation, no matter the consequences.
In Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of our Ancestors, we read that Shimon Ben Zoma, a rabbi from about nineteen hundred years ago, used to say, “איזו הוא גיבור? החובש את יצרו. (Eizeh hu gibor? Hachoveish et yitzro.)—Who is strong? Those who can control their evil inclination.” It’s interesting to note that the evil inclination, the yetzer hara, is not inherently evil. It’s the creative force within us as well as the destructive force. There’s a rabbinic story in which the sages capture the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. For the three days that it was held captive, no eggs were laid. Had its captivity lasted longer, no houses would have been built, no produce would have been grown, and no babies would have been born. The yetzer hara is necessary for life to exist, but it cannot have free rein; we have to harness it, directing it away from the temptation to lie, cheat, steal, gossip, betray, hoard, evade, oppress, etc.—all of which require some amount of creativity—and directing it toward good means and ends. Each time we control our yetzer hara, our evil inclination, we show that we are strong and we reinforce that strength.
Strength is also the ability to overcome great force or pressure. As anyone who has dealt with hardships, significant challenges, life-threatening illnesses, or the like knows, occasionally life tries to knock us down to the ground. We are bowled over and struggle immensely just to get back up. But those of us who survive those experiences, who manage to find our way back up after being knocked down, we have a hard-won resilience, fortitude, and strength that will not fail us. Just knowing that we have that strength allows us to overcome the challenges we are sure to face in the future.
But what really makes us feel strong is when we share that strength—and the empathy and compassion we’ve gained from our own experience—with others who need support. There are countless stories of people who survived hardship or trauma who then go on to create organizations or support groups around similar issues—from Beit T’Shuvah, the Jewish addiction recovery center and synagogue in Los Angeles that was co-founded by a social worker and an ex-con man and recovering alcoholic, to Judi’s House, a children’s bereavement support organization in Denver that was started by a football player whose mother died when he was 12, to the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program that began when the family and friends of a teen who killed himself reached out to their friends and neighbors to give them ways to ask for help. And these are just a few of the hundreds of organizations—local and national—that share the strength of people who survived trauma and hardship.
We see this same empathy and guidance on a much smaller, but no less important, scale too—when a cancer survivor volunteers to sit with patients undergoing chemotherapy, or when a widow invites a recently bereaved friend over for dinner, or even when a child who has struggled mightily to learn how to do math becomes a math teacher so her students can have a better experience than she did. We might wish not to have had those experiences, but we can ensure that we did not struggle in vain by using our hard-won strength to help others.
And when each of us uses our various strengths and abilities to help others, the whole community becomes stronger. When we withstand the pressures and temptations to overcommit (which really means to partially commit) or to use the creativity of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, to lie, cheat, and steal, we are better able to trust and rely on each other. When our creativity is used for good ends AND good means, we can problem-solve more effectively and more efficiently. And when we share the fortitude and compassion that we’ve gained from overcoming challenges, we become united as a community of strength.
I look around this sanctuary tonight and I see so many strong people with so many different strengths. Every single one of you has something—many things—that make you strong. Even those of you watching the livestream or watching the recording later, I know that every one of you has gifts and talents of strength. I also see and know of many people in our community who need help to share their strengths. For some, the help they need is just someone to reach out and invite them to participate. Others need temporary support to get through a rough time—meals during an illness, people to show up to ensure a minyan for shiva, or someone to gather clothes and toys for a foster parent when children are dropped off with little advance notice. And then there are all the members of our community who, because of age or disease or disability, regularly struggle to feel connected to our community and cannot share their gifts and strengths with us. They might need rides to the temple or to doctor’s appointments, they might need a visitor to learn with them or trade stories, or they might need someone to come over to pick up loaves of their famous mandelbrot or cozy knitted shawls to bring to someone else in need.
We at Temple Sinai now have system in place to allow each of us to share our strengths, gifts, and abilities with others. Through the website Lotsa Helping Hands, our B’racha Center for Jewish Connections, and our Caring Community, each one of us can offer help and support when we’re available and in the ways we want, AND those of us who need it can ask for help as well. If every person in our congregation volunteered just once to help another member (though we hope you’ll volunteer even more!), we would all benefit. You all will receive an email after Rosh HaShanah ends to sign up to be one of our helping hands so that you can participate in making our community even stronger than it already is, connected by the bonds of support and care, of compassion and hope.
So what makes you strong? Is it your resilience, your perseverance, or your stamina? Is it your compassion, your temperament, or your easy joy? Are you wise or intelligent or insightful? Do you have a strong internal moral compass or a passion for making the world more just? Are you a healer, a teacher, a fixer, a problem-solver? Do you create works of beauty or make delicious food or craft instruments of use and comfort? Strength comes in all shapes and sizes, in our abilities and characteristics and in those of our friends and family. What makes you strong?
Tonight we begin the new year 5777. In Hebrew, the year is written in letters instead of numbers: תשע"ז (tav-shin-ayin-zayin). Ayin, which has a value of 70, and zayin, which has the value of seven, together spell the word עז (oz), strength. As we enter this new year, I wish all of us the fortitude to make it through the trials of life and to make our dreams a reality, the courage to acknowledge our limits so we know when to ask for help, the confidence to see beyond our own egos and insecurities to help others succeed, and the persistence to turn our creative energies from sin to blessing. May we use our gifts, our assets, and our talents to enrich our lives and the lives of those around us with hope, love, and strength.
Kein y’hi ratzon—may this be God’s will and may this be our will.