Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778

I was sitting in my college dorm room in October of 2004. It was Game 4 of the World Series. I watched as the batter hit a comebacker to the mound and the pitcher flipped the ball to first base. The Boston Red Sox had won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. I sat in shock, unable to respond, unsure of what to do. For a moment.
That moment, quickly, wore off. I knew exactly what to do. I knew how to celebrate with my friends around me. I knew to go out into the streets and cheer and shout. This was a completely new experience for me and for all those people around me. None of us had seen this happen before, and yet we all knew exactly what to do. We knew how to behave. None of us had had this experience, and yet every single one of us knew how to respond. We responded with words and we respond with actions.
I imagine this is an experience that many people in this room can identify with. It might have been the White Sox or the Cubs. Even though the vast majority of us were not alive the last time our teams won the World Series, in those moments of celebration, intuitively, we knew exactly how to respond. We knew what to say and what to do.
In many situations in our lives, we know what to say. In moments big and small, it can be easy to respond. When our family and friends bring us happy news, of an engagement, a marriage or a new child, we can comfortably say, “congratulations” or “mazel tov”. We know how to offer support.
When we are told of a child who earned a good grade in school or a friend who received a promotion at work, we know how to offer praise and to talk of how all of their hard work has been rewarded. In those moments of joy, even if the experience is new to us, we can often find the words, the sentiments, and the emotions to respond. We can respond in words and we can respond in actions. We know how to cheer. We know how to give high-fives. We know how to offer congratulations. We know how to reward hard work.
Yet, in moments of sadness. It is far more difficult. When we see our friends dealing with the grief after the death of a loved one. When we see members of our community struggling with their own illness or caring for others. When we see individuals affected by the forces of destruction in the world around us. We see them reeling and in pain, forced to do the work of rebuilding their lives. When we see family who has lost their jobs, grappling with their finances and their future. We find it difficult to respond with words. We find it difficult to respond with actions.
Sometimes we do show up. We offer help. We bring physical and emotional support. We give people the strength to rebuild their lives and rebuild their homes. And yet, often we do not know how to respond. We do not know how to respond with words. We do not know how to respond with actions. We do not know what to say, what to offer. We feel inadequately prepared to offer a response, So we stay away, fearing that we will make the situation worse.
We rationalize our inactions by telling ourselves that someone else will show up. Someone else will offer support. We pretend that we did not actually know the people that well. We lie to ourselves when we say, are distant enough from the person, from the people, that our presence will not be missed. We argue that we do not want to be a part of that din of empty words.
We can be weighed down by our own baggage and personal experiences. When we wish to bring support to our friend who is struggling with a cancer diagnosis, we will not be able to distance ourselves from our own traumatic illness. When we try to console a member of our community who parent has died, we will be overwhelmed by our own personal grief, we will not be able to be of any assistance.
Throughout our lives, we all suffer and look for support. Throughout our lives, we also have the opportunity to offer that same support to those that suffer around us.
Being present for the good is easy, it feels natural.
Being present for the difficult times is not easy, it can feel uncomfortable and forced.
We often feel unprepared and, yet, being present is incredibly important.
Those moments are difficult for each and every one of us. Even for those of us, who sit up here, it is difficult to find the correct words that bring comfort. Providing for our friends and community during these difficult moments is also incredibly important. Our tradition teaches us that certain deeds are beyond measure, they are so important that the impact on the people around us can not be quantified. Among these, are visiting the sick, consoling the bereaved and bringing peace to those in strife. In order to build a stronger community we can confront those situations together. So we can be more present in the future. So, we can understand how to bring comfort and consolation to those around us.
Our Torah, our Bible, offers insight into how to be present for those in grief, those suffering, through pain and anguish. The Book of Job is one of those places of instruction. Job, was an upstanding and righteous man, who over the course of two chapters loses everything he has.
He suffers through illness. He contracts a skin disease that covers his body in boils.
He deals with financial hardship. Bandits attack his fields and capture his servants.
He reckons with natural disasters. Fierce winds destroys his son’s home.
He grapples with incredible grief. All 10 of his children are killed in a tragic accident.
So, Job begins to mourn. He tears his clothes, covers himself in ash and begins a period of mourning. Much in the same way we might observe Shiva, the week of mourning.
Three of his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar hear of all the tragedies that have befallen Job. They begin doing all the right things. They go to him, they sit with him, for, “seven days and seven night, and none spoke a word to him, for they saw how great his grief was.” They show up. They are present for him. They do not need to offer specific words or advice, because words and advice would not bring any support in that moment. Their presence, being present. This is enough.

In that moment of pain and suffering, Job is not ready to hear their words. To accept any offer of comfort or support. So his friends, sit with him, until he is ready. Sometimes, all we need to do is offer our presence. Sometimes all we need to bring is ourselves. “The first Jewish insight [to comforting those in pain] is community. In your time of greatest isolation, confusion and helplessness, the community reaches out and embraces you, tells you that you are not alone.”
Our tradition devises ways to build a community around those in pain. It helps us to know we are not alone. To build a kinship and community in suffering. To share that experience with others. To find people to support and lean on. We do this for others because we know, that there are times in the past we have sought this support and there will be times in the future that we will need it as well.
Our Rabbis tell as story about Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Eleazer. Rabbi Akiba needed to bring bad news to Rabbi Eleazer. He could have rushed over to Eleazar’s house and told him the news immediately. Instead, Akiba approached Eleazar and sat at an appropriate distance. Akiba waited for Eleazar to speak first. Only after Eleazar began the conversation and gave Akiba an opening did Akiba deliver that bad news. Akiba gave Eleazar in his suffering and torment control over the situation.
We can cede control of the situation to those in suffering, because only they know what they truly need. So, Job speaks, he begins to talk to his friends, and each speaks to him in turn. Up to this point, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar have acting in the best way possible. Their behavior however, takes a negative turn. They have done the difficult work of being present. As, they speak to offer support, compassion and encouragement, they instead inflict greater anguish and pain on Job.
First Eliphaz speaks, he looks back at how Job has responded to others when they were in pain and grief. “You have encouraged many, you have strengthened failing hands. Your words have kept others from falling. Now, [this is grief] reaches you, it is too much? You are unnerved? Is not your piety, your confidence? Your integrity your hope?” Eliphaz offers the sage wisdom,”This happened to you – your children perished – because you are strong enough to take it.” Eliphaz, who has only the best of intentions, offers words that do not heal at all. They are empty.
So, Bildad steps forward. His words might be even worse than Eliphaz. “Will God pervert the right? Will the Almighty pervert Justice? Your Sons sinned, and they were killed for their sins.” Your children died he tells Job, because they deserved to die for they were sinners. Those are Bildad’s words of comfort. Inditing the deceased is not the way to bring comfort to Job.
And finally, Zophar. “Would you discover the mystery of God. Would you discover the wisdom of the Almighty?” Zophar’s words of comfort, you will never be able to know why. Simply stop worrying and accept your situation. These words too are hurtful instead of being helpful.
These three friends start strong, doing the right thing, helping Job. They show up, they support their friend Job. But the words they offer do not help at all. After each of his friends spoke, Job goes off on a long diatribe of pain and grief. Arguing that these words of support only inflicted greater pain and consternation.
Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar brought words they thought would bring comfort. But, instead they caused distress. Our words have great power. Even small differences in our words can make a huge impact.
Two years ago, Dave Goldberg, a young husband and father died in a tragic accident while on vacation with his family. 30 days after his death, his wife, Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook,wrote of her personal painful experience of death and mourning. She called attention to the power of words people offered, “Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions” Can cause distress, “When I am asked “How are you?” I [have to] stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am?”
How are you? She argues, “—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I hear “How are you today?” She says, “I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”

The difference between those two questions, How are you? And How are you today? Is one word. But the difference between those two questions can be massive. Words have power.
Our words can often feel glib and unhelpful. So our tradition offers a solution, we learn to say, “May God Comfort you together with all the others who are mourning for Zion and Jerusalem.” “May God Comfort you “ – since we do not know how – “together with all the others who are mourning for Zion and Jerusalem.” – because we are all in pain, because we all seek comfort.
Our pain is deeply personal and our pain is communal.
It is the pain of death, of destruction and of loss.
It is the pain of Job.
Job is a character in a book, written almost 3000 years ago, yet it’s message continue to be incredibly meaningful today. The Rabbis of the Talmud, wanted to understand who Job was and when Job lived. They attempted to place him in historical context.
Each of these wise and knowledgeable Rabbis stepped forward and offered an opinion on when this story occurred. Some argued that Job lived in the time of Jacob, or while the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, or during the Exodus, or in the time of the Prophets. Others made cases that Job lived at the beginning of the 2nd Temple, or in the time of King Ahashverus, during the story of Purim, or in the time of the Kingdom of Sheba, or during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. Some Rabbis believed Job was Jewish others disagreed and said he was not Jewish. Another Rabbi believed that Job never existed at all, that the story is a parable, to teach us about pain and suffering.
These Rabbis when trying to understand Job, spread his life over a 2000 year period. Why was it so difficult to place Job in historical context? Because Job is a universal story. It could have happened in the time of Jacob, or the Exodus, or during the 2nd Temple or even today. Pain and Suffering are universal. Jews and non-Jews experience pain. Jews and non-Jews mourn. Each of our pain is just as difficult, just as agonizing, just as a personal.
Pain is universal.
Job lived during the time of Jacob. And Job lived during the time of the Prophets. And Job lived during the time of the 2nd Temple. And Job lives today.

Each of us is Job.
We are Job when we suffer through personal tragedy and pain.
We are Job when we deal with the agony of loss.
We are Job when we suffer through financial hardship and natural disasters.
We are Job when we endure our own illnesses and those of our families.
We are Job in our pain.

Each of us has the opportunities to embody the best of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar.
We can be present for the Jobs in our lives.
We can offer comfort and support.
We can respond with words.
We can respond with actions.

We are all Job.
We are all Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar.
Too often we fear we bring the negative parts of these three friends reactions, we can however learn to embody the best of these three friends.
It is easy, it is natural, it is instinctive to celebrate with our community. We can respond for the good. We want to respond for the positive. We want to say “mazel tov”, we want to offer our congratulations.
Showing up for the pain and anguish are much more difficult, it is unnatural, it feels forced. If we want to be a community. A group of people who show up and care for each other, we have to do so in times of happiness and in times of sadness. In times of great joy and in times of great pain. This is difficult.

That is why we are here today.
It is part of the reason I am here. One of the reason I became a Rabbi was because of the way people responded to me and my family when we dealt with our own pain and suffering. The way the community I grew up in responded with words and responded with actions, inspired me to help bring that into the world. Knowing how difficult this is, yet how impactful and important.
It is part of the reason we are here. This year, the Chicago Sinai Congregation Community is consciously starting a process to better understand how we show up for members of our own community who are dealing with pain and anguish. We are evaluating how our community does the work of being present, and how we can improve the ways we respond. Please join us as we are begin this work together in the coming months.
As we move into the new year. May we continue to be present for our community in times of joy. May we work to be more present for our community in times of pain. May we learn to respond better with our words and with our actions.

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