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Finding Salvation in the Chaos | Rosh Hashanah 5781 Sermon

Rabbi Laura Abrasley

In the early morning hours of April 18th, 1906, the city of San Francisco was struck by a major earthquake. And in the aftermath, a perfect storm of broken gas lines and damaged chimneys produced fires that threatened to destroy the city and everyone in it.

But if you ask the citizens of San Francisco it was the fires that saved them. At least that was the case for Anna Amelia Holshouser. She and her friends dragged working stoves from damaged buildings to create makeshift kitchens and shelters that fed thousands of displaced people. These outdoor community kitchens became places where neighbors could stave off hunger and feed one another spiritually and emotionally.[1] 

When I read this story in Rebecca Solnit’s extraordinary book A Paradise Built in Hell, it felt familiar and hopeful. It reminded me that sometimes the upending of normal as we know it can lead us to a new path of possibility.  

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish New Year, opening day of our season of return, renewal, and reflection. Around the world, Jewish communities are commanded to gather, and fill our sacred spaces with people, with purpose, with prayer. 

If I close my eyes this morning, I can see your beautiful faces as you smile and greet one another, hear your laughter and conversations bouncing off the stained-glass windows. I recognize the college kids home for the holiday. I giggle at the almost adolescents itching in their “good clothes.” I watch our multi-generational families scout out their regular seats and our cornerstone members hug one another.

If you listen carefully, perhaps you can imagine it too:

Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year! How was your summer? 

Your son has really grown-up. I remember when he was so little.

I heard you moved. I hope you’re still here in Newton. 

Thank you for asking. My mom is recovering. We are lucky and grateful.

But this year, you are not here. We must be apart in order to keep one another safe. Our lives depend on it.

Six months ago, the fires of a global pandemic changed everything. And we know in our heart of hearts that the foundational Jewish value of Pikuah Nefesh, saving one life in order to save the world, is the only thing that matters as we fight off a fire we never imagined would ravage our world for so long. 

We wear masks. Wash our hands. Negotiate social distance. Manage an ever- changing set of guidelines, mourn losses that could have, should have, been mitigated.   

We crave our old routines. And some days we just want to crawl under the covers and give in to the darkness.

But somewhere deep inside of me there is a spark, one that I know lives in all of you. That spark can save us. It is found in the most unlikely of places, in the rubble of our disaster, in the chaos that changed our life.

So perhaps today we too can look to the fire, in the form of light, from the story that begins the Jewish story. 

Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz … 

In a beginning, God created heaven and earth[2]

The story of creation is a familiar one. We may need to reach back into our religious school memory banks, but I feel certain each of you could recall the basics. God creates the world in six days, on the first day bringing forth light from darkness. God creates our world with words, puts order into our universe, brings forth life – plants, animals, humans. And on the seventh day, Shabbat, God rests.

The text continues: 

V’ha’aretz ha’yitah tohu v’vohu 

All the earth was chaos

v’chosech al p’nai t’hom 

with darkness over the surface of the deep

v’ruach Elohim merachefet al p’nai ha’mayim 

and a wind from God sweeping over the water[3].

Now, it might strike you as strange but the words that give me the most hope and keep my cautious optimism running just a little bit ahead of my utter despair, are “tohu v’vohu”, which I translate as chaos. 

I believe that chaos will be our salvation.

So, before you hit pause, thinking that the rabbi has clearly lost her mind, hear me out. 

Listen to what God brings forth from the chaos. 

Va’yomer Elohim yihi or va’y’hi or.

God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light.[4]

The creation story teaches, utopia is born from an unexpected place, in “tohu v’vohu.” From chaos.

Solnit’s stories of catastrophe reflect this unanticipated brightness. When the world as we know it is disrupted, disaster can be the great equalizer. When we all live the same reality, even for a limited time, it can suspend our preconceived notions of class, race and privilege. It can break us down to our most basic selves, which in truth might reflect our best selves, a default humanity setting worthy of the Garden of Eden, a version of humans we should aspire to everyday.  Solnit reminds us, “Human beings reset themselves to something altruistic, communitarian, resourceful, and imaginative after a disaster, … we revert to something we already know how to do.”[5] 

And what does Temple Shalom know how to do? We know how to feed people. Temple Shalom’s commitment to ending food insecurity is legendary. We are the inheritors of a long list of social action programs created to fight off hunger. We lead the way in donations every High Holidays to the Newton Food Pantry. And this past spring we engineered a very creative Front Porch Food Drive for Family Table. 

Hunger in Newton is not new. One in 8 Newton families live at or below the poverty line. The Newton Food Pantry, one of three pantries in our city, feeds close to 900 Newtonites a month, a number that continues to increase. During Covid-19, over 370 new households have sought help in the midst of this ongoing health and economic crisis.[6]

And as we settle in for winter, food insecurity is only going to increase across our community.

So, I find myself wondering, is there more that we can do?

Of course, the answer is yes. And I have an idea, one I hope we can consider implementing.

The idea is straightforward. Simple elegance. We create a community refrigerator.

We put a refrigerator in our neighborhood and fill it with food. Good food. Food you would buy in a grocery store. Fresh produce, eggs, dairy, bread, meat. 

This kind of fridge has popped up in several cities in recent months: New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia. The movement is growing, but the effort remains local and the fridges independent. Neighbors helping neighbors. Nothing more. Nothing less. 

The community fridge represents mutual aid in one of its purest forms. The idea that solidarity, not charity, is what communities need in order to become fairer and stronger.[7] It’s a hyper-local effort to restore independence to community members who are having a difficult time making ends meet. Neighbors take what they need and leave what they don’t. Other neighbors keep the fridge clean and stocked. Sometimes, neighbors take raw items, cook them, and return prepared dishes to the shelves to share. 

So, what do you think? Could we put a community refrigerator on the corner of Temple and Myrtle? Could we come together safely and provide good food for individuals that need a little extra? Could we expand our commitment to fight against food insecurity here in Newton, reconnect with one another over shared purpose, and restore dignity to our neighbors? 

I believe the answer is yes. If you believe the answer is yes, please join me at a digital meeting on Tuesday evening, October 13th at 7:00 p.m. We will learn together and consider the next steps needed to bring a resource like the community fridge to Newton. More details to come.

Many of the citizens of San Francisco, the ones who came together to save their city with makeshift shelters and cafes were ordinary people. They overcame their fear and grief to look out for one another. In doing so, they glimpsed a new way of living in the world, one where “strangers become friends and collaborators, goods are shared freely, [average] people improvise new roles.”[8] 

We learn from Rebecca Solnit that Anna Amelia Holshouser was one of these people. Her spontaneous generosity represented an ordinary response, one that rises out of our community every day. Her ramshackle cafe defended against hunger, isolation and disconnection. In the midst of the darkness that followed the earthquake, she found her fire, and used it to light the way forward to a better day. 

Her light in the darkness was aptly named. Her patrons coined her cafe The Mizpah Cafe.[9] Not Mitzvah. But MizPAH.

The Hebrew noun mizpah means watchtower. In the ancient world, the watchtower was a sign of strength and security, a place to gather and care for one another in challenging times. 

Since our founding, Temple Shalom aspires to be such a place, a mizpah, a watchtower in Newton.

Let us share our abundance, our generosity, our empathy. 

Let us feed our neighbors with food and our souls with love. 

A paradise of possibility is so close if we build it together. I can see it. Can you?
 


Watch Rabbi Abrasley deliver her sermon on Rosh Hashanah morning:

 


[1] A Paradise Built in Hell. Rebecca Solnit. pg. 14.

[2] Genesis 1:1

[3] Genesis 1:2

[4] Genesis 1:3

[5] Solnit. pg. 18

[6] www.newtonfoodpantry.org

[7] There are many articles covering this resource including two that I relied upon for information as I wrote this sermon: https://ny.curbed.com/2020/5/29/21274491/community-fridges-nyc-brooklyn-covid-19 and https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/nyregion/free-food-fridge-nyc.html

[8] Solnit. pg. 17

[9] ibid

Fri, January 22 2021 9 Sh'vat 5781