2016 It Wasn’t So Bad After All

Shabbat Service

I don’t know about you, but lately, all I keep hearing and reading is how horrible this year, 2016 has been.

Just a week ago, my facebook newsfeed flooded with the following statements:  “Seriously 2016, I’m so done with you. RIP George Michael.”  “2016 you are the worst. We love you George Michael.”

This wasn’t the first time I saw these remarks, and it wasn’t the last. Only two days later, when we learned that Carrie Fisher died, I actually chose to not look at facebook. I knew what I would see. On the one hand, beautiful tributes to a beloved actress who inspired so many others. And another slew of “2016 I’m over you” or “see in ya 2017” statements reiterating a need for new year, one much better than 2016.

A day later I saw a GoFundMe page to “Protect Betty White from 2016.” You get the picture…I said it on erev Rosh Hashanah and I’ll say it again on the cusp of our secular New Year — it’s been a rough year for so many people.

Even as I write this sermon, I see the news about Debbie Reynolds. The posting continues …“2016 Dayeinu. It is really really enough!”

But 2016 has been tough not only because of all of the celebrity deaths. Perhaps we claimed 2016 as the worst year after Brexit, or the shooting at Pulse night club, or as we continued to see the images of children in Aleppo. Our world is hurting, our nation faces immense uncertainty, our communities feel broken, so many of us feel helpless.

So we state loudly to our friends and our family, or proudly declare on facebook, “I’m done with 2016. Ready for 2017.”

But on this last Shabbat of 2016, and on this seventh night of our Hanukkah festival, I want to share with you a teaching from Rabbi Debra Orenstein about Hanukkah, that I think will allow all of us to take a step back and gain a little perspective on this past year.  Rabbi Orenstein teaches: Imagine the light burning miraculously in the ancient temple. Day one was daring – they lit the light, knowing it would go out after just one day.

Day two was stunning – it lasted!
Day three was nerve-racking – but it lasted again.
Day four was celebratory – it brought confidence.
Day five was – at least for some – “old news.”
“Day five is a “miracle danger zone.” It represents the possibility of taking miracles for granted.

Perhaps we have entered the miracle danger zone. Our year has been overshadowed by the amount of celebrity deaths (and there have been a lot of them), or perhaps the loss of our own loved ones, or illness. Our year has been overshadowed by a difficult election cycle. Our year has been overshadowed by an increased rhetoric of hate and intolerance not somewhere else in the world, by right here in our own country, in our own neighborhoods. Our year has been overshadowed by the violence on the streets of our very own city, in our country and in our world.

I must confess, I actually wrote another sermon for this Shabbat on Wednesday. It was, in my own words, “too dark”. It wasn’t the message I wanted to give during Hanukkah or on the last Shabbat of 2016. So, I started over. I thought to myself, I’m done with all of the negativity surrounding 2016. For some people it was a great year. For others, even if there were difficult things that happened, still, we must find the good.  After all weren’t there miracles in 2016? Things worthy of celebration of awe, moments filled with wonder and possibility? 

So I did a google search, “what were the happiest moments of 2016?” To my surprise and shock, I could not find what I was looking for. Every article began with a line about how awful this year has been.

And then I remembered the rest of Rabbi Debra Orenstein’s teaching, for those of you who have studied Heschel with me, you will not find this teaching surprising. She tells the following story:

When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave public lectures in the evening, he would often begin by saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen, a great miracle just happened.” People would lean forward, eager to know about the great miracle that coincided with the arrival of a great spiritual leader. And Heschel would report, “The sun just went down.” Some people would laugh; others would shake their heads in disappointment. Then Heschel would speak about “radical amazement,” wonder, and awe.
Radical Amazement as defined by Heschel means to “get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Ours is a tradition focused on not taking things for granted. On offering thanks. Do you know that the very first words that we are supposed to speak when we wake up in the morning are “Modah ani”. Grateful am I! Perhaps our liturgy teaches us that each morning we must remind ourselves of the good in our lives, the good in the world — and offer our thanks.

Perhaps 2016 has been too difficult to do this. And thus we’ve forgotten about the miracles of 2016. So now is the time to be reminded. Shortly before the news of Debbie Reynolds, I posted the following on my facebook wall: “trying to create a list of positive things that happened in 2016 (besides the cubs winning the world series and a female candidate running for president) — help please!”

The responses were everything I wanted to see:
● Pictures of babies being born
● Stories of children becoming Bat Mitzvah
● People adopting pets
● Couples sharing memories beneath the chuppah from their wedding day
Close friends also shared funny memories from the past year:
● I remember laughing with you this year… a lot
● Watching the bachelor together after a 5 year hiatus
● You joined the Autism Speaks to Young professionals committee
● And Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar!

One friend wrote: “I got married…and I keep having to remind myself of that.” And it’s true, we do have to keep reminding ourselves about these amazing things that happened this year. 

Since when is it an awful year when an important life cycle celebration occurs? Or what about the 300+ days this year that were filled with laughter and smiles? How about the good work people have done to try to better the world, too?

Did you see the blue bins in our Sinai lobby after Yom Kippur – filled to the brim with so much food to donate. And then the 5th and 6th graders sorted the food with excitement. Or how about in the recent weeks, filled with toys to donate during the holiday season.

Check out our facebook page — our amazing director of engagement (whom we hired in 2016!) posted a collage for every night of Hanukkah of the amazing things that we have done as a Sinai community this year. The amazing learning, volunteer work, the singing, the praying…and the list goes on!

The only problem is that sometimes all of that, becomes like the fifth candle. Perhaps you volunteer at Ronald McDonald House so often that you forget to remember how important your impact really is. Or maybe you come to Wednesday or Thursday class every week, that it becomes rote and you forget to recognize the blessing of learning and studying together as one community.

My younger sister was part of my facebook experiment. And when the responses first came in about the positive things that happened in 2016, I exclaimed, “but people are only commenting about life cycle events — births, weddings…I knew that would happen.” My sister said, “Ya, but Amanda, those are important.”
Of course they are. Sometimes, we just need a reminder. During this Hanukkah, each candle, each light of our Chanukkiah, our Chanukkah Menorah becomes our reminder. On Hanukkah we are commanded to publicize the miracle, that is why we place our Chanukkiot in the window, for others to see. When I posted on facebook asking for people to share the good things about 2016, I knew that the positive things would be publicized. In a way, I was, you might say, publicizing the miracles of 2016.

We may not be celebrating the miracle of oil lasting 8 days or a miraculous military victory, and maybe 2016 wasn’t our best year ever… but as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, Plenty of great miracles happened…moments that filled our lives with awe and with wonder.

On this final Shabbat of 2016, let us all publicize the miracles of 2016, share with your friends or your family the good things that happened this year, remind them of the fun you had together, the laughs shared. And on this Shabbat soak in the light of the 7th Hanukkah candle, remember the sun did set this evening and in the morning it will rise again.

Happy Hanukkah and Shabbat Shalom!

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