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Don’t Go Chasing Rainbows

Rabbi Allison Berry

Rosh Hashanah 5782
 

It was a gorgeous April day. The family was gathered together at last; they’d postponed this moment for months. Three little girls sat on the grass in their new spring dresses holding stones they’d painted with the word, “love.” Someone was playing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the ukulele.1 There was hugging and crying; laughing. It felt like a great darkness had lifted. We had made it!

Then slowly we began to recite Kaddish...Yitkadal, v’yitchadash...as the family remembered their beloved grandfather, father and husband. The little girls pulled back the drape from the footstone. And as they did, I thought of the blessing for rainbows:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעולָם זוכֵר הַבְּרִית וְנֶאֱמָן בִּבְרִיתו וְקַיָּם בְּמַאֲמָרו.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, zocher habrit v’ne’eman biv’reetoh v’kayam b’ma’amarav. “Shine down on us, Source of Light, Source of color, of prism, of humankind. Remember our partnership and our promise with love.”2 

This prayer appears at the end of the story of Noah and symbolizes God’s promise that God will never again destroy the world.3 The story of Noah, theologically challenging as it is, makes clear that if we want to see the rainbow, sometimes, we must first feel the rain.

As I look out on all of you on this Rosh Hashanah morning - some of us here in our beautiful sanctuary and some of us adding to our community on livestream - we are all soaked! And unlike Noah, who only had to deal with 40 days and 40 nights, it’s been 19 months of rain and counting. 

In my house: 

  • Digital school was not a fan-favorite. 

  • During the lock-down my grandmother turned 100 and my family and I weren’t there to celebrate. 

  • We worried about my sister alone in Manhattan where attacks on Asian-American people like her were taking place down the street. 

I know you have your stories too. 

  • But all of this seems trivial when I think about burying Temple members who died from Covid. The pain of this experience will always be with me. 

Finally, in spring, we got to see a little sun, didn’t we? With 95% of adults over 30 in Newton vaccinated, we were eager to return to “real life.”4 We started going to restaurants, a little nervously at first. Our kids went off to camp; we could hug our grandchildren again. We put away our umbrellas thinking the worst was behind us.  

But when the highly contagious Delta variant appeared and spread, we were forced to roll back some of our new freedoms. Once again we found ourselves calling airlines to change our travel plans, and adjusting our High Holiday schedules again and again. We may have driven you just a little bit crazy with all the emails. I know.  

My friend, Rabbi Danny Burkeman articulates how many of us feel right now, “Forced into a reactive posture, [we mourn] for what we no longer have – we [can] be forgiven for a sense of powerlessness, the impression that events [are] happening around and to us, the feeling that we [have] no power to author our own story.”5 

What Danny describes is exactly how I feel. I don’t like surprises - I also hold on to what I believe to be true for dear life. The people who know me best may call that being a control freak. I call it personality.6 But earlier this summer, deep down, I was feeling really low and I knew I had to get back up. But I didn’t know how. 

My father inadvertently showed me. In August, he had the honor of spending time with one of my children while Mark and I were away. Shout out to my dad - thank you again. (And don’t forget to send me the dry cleaning bill). I won’t share the exact specifics of what happened, but let’s just say this story recounted by Pedro Bartes comes close.  

“A few weeks ago, a woman in the supermarket [was shopping near] a grandfather and his...grandson who screamed for candy, cookies, you name it. Maybe some of you have been there?

Meanwhile, grandpa worked his way around the aisles, while saying in a controlled voice, "Easy William, we won't be long…easy, boy." Another outburst and again the woman heard grandpa say calmly, "It's okay, William, just a couple more minutes and we'll be out of here."

At the checkout, the little terror threw items out of the cart, [hitting grandpa in the face with his blue covid mask], but grandpa whispered...softly, "William, William, relax buddy, stay cool."

[The woman saw grandpa again outside], as he was [bundling] the boy into the car...and she said to the man, "It's none of my business, but you were amazing in there. No matter how loud and disruptive that child got, you were calm and kept saying, 'things would be okay.' William is so lucky to have you as his grandpa!"

"Thanks," said the grandfather, "But I'm William. The little jerk's name is Kevin.”7

Just as we can’t always calm a badly-behaved child, we can’t change the reality of covid. But there are things we can do to help ourselves when faced with such a lack of control. 

Dr. Dan McAdams, a personality psychologist at Northwestern University has found that: “The [stories we tell about our lives]...become our identity.” In studying personal narratives, some people make the choice to tell redemptive stories about life’s challenges. While others tell what McAdams calls, “contamination stories.” The way we tell our stories determines the outcome: “Studies show that [the telling of] redemptive stories are associated with psychological well-being...while contamination stories [are] linked to depression and the belief that one’s life lacks coherence.”8

There is a Jewish way to explain this. Just a few minutes ago - we read this contemporary explanation of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer: 

“We contemplate a new year, and this we know:

Some of us will live and some of us will die.

Some by water and some by fire.

Some by sword and some by beast…

[And] even so - 

The way we act,

The way we speak,

The way we meet God’s image in ourselves and in others -

These things have great power to make our lives matter.”9 

And so as we begin this New Year, instead of spending these sacred days looking for a rainbow, we need to create our own. Ultimately - this story, the one we get to write, is what will matter most, and be written into the Book of Life.

As I say this - I know some of you here may be thinking to yourself : ‘What here could possibly be redemptive? “Who has time to look for rainbows let alone make one? I’m too busy running.” 

For 19 months it’s been a constant marathon to adapt to everything that’s been thrown at us. We feel disoriented and exhausted from the pressure, the fatigue, and the sadness. If we want to find the redemption, let alone write any story at all, we need to give ourselves a break. We need to give ourselves the gift of time so we can reflect.

So, let’s do it. 

Judaism shows us how, and we can start today. For you see, today is not only Rosh Hashanah, it’s the first day of another significant Jewish practice - it’s called the shmita year. The Torah teaches that every seven years we must take a full year of sabbatical, an extended Shabbat. During shmita, which means “release,” the land must lie fallow and debtors are released from the crushing burden of debt. 

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin has a wonderful way of explaining this: “Shmita is not a call to live for one year with different rules... only to dump us back, unchanged, into that “real” world. Shmita is a rehearsal of a new way...where each of us is filled and flourishes...where disproportionate inequities would not, and could not, exist.”10 

During this year of shmita could we give our swirling thoughts a rest? Let go of some of our anger and disappointment. 

I have a colleague, Reverend Jenny Smith, she isn’t exactly an expert on the redemptive power of shmita - but she suggests some of the ways we can lift up this practice and use it to make a difference in our lives.

[this year, she writes, can we?:]

“Rest when it's time to rest.

Say yes to a new idea when it glistens with possibility.

Say no when something feels too heavy.

Ask new questions in places we assumed the old answer.

Question the speed at which we live.

Go to therapy.

Love [others] with beautiful boundaries in place.

Maybe this is how we disrupt the deeply ingrained realities of our world.”11

The shmita year can give us the time and space to uncover the rainbows - the redemption - that lies buried in our stories. With our minds rested and open and clear - could we let go of some of our old and untenable ways, open ourselves up to new possibilities; tell the story of what in this paradoxical world we love the most? 

Arundhati Roy, in an article in the Financial Times, reminds us of what is at stake if we don’t: “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. [This pandemic can be]..a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice...our smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”12

On this beautiful Rosh Hashanah morning, I’m ready to write my own story. Let me share a little of it with you. 

  • Last year, a Temple member hand-delivered a challah to my home every week. You know who you are. 

  • Despite the fact that for years we have told our kids to stop asking for a dog -- we got a dog.

  • Mark realized in a new way that life is too short to spend it unfulfilled  - he took a leap and realized a long held dream: he started his own business. 

  • And me? With covid ever on my mind, I began to think more intensely about my mom than I had in a while. When she died from cancer, she was only about ten years older than I am now. This prompted me to focus on my mental and physical wellness in a way I hadn’t in years. ]

And I know there are more stories to come. I want to learn from the tears we shed; from the success and failure of our leaders; from our strong and resilient children; and from you. And as I do, I pray I will continue to remember all of the beauty and grace this complex world can offer.  

As I think back to the cemetery, the unveiling, on that April day, those little girls had a message for all of us painted on those rocks: “love.” The moment could have been one of sadness, of regret and painful memories. Instead, those little girls and their family chose to reach for love. I hope you will remember that as you walk through the next year. Love is the power that can help us shape our stories as we move forward.

On this New Year, which doubles as a year of shmita, I hope the stories you tell become marks of beauty in an imperfect life.13 That the words you write in the Book of Life bring you healing, solace, and joy. That you too can bless the rainbow and the rain, for one cannot exist without the other.14 

Shana Tova.

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  1. "Over the Rainbow" is a ballad composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Yip Harburg. 1939.
  2. Thank you, Rabbi Jen Gubitz for your beautiful translation of this blessing
  3. Genesis 9:12-17
  4. Data found in Newton’s Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s weekly newsletter.
  5. Sermon “What Story Will We Tell,” written by Rabbi Danny Burkeman, High Holidays 2020. I’m grateful to Danny for sharing this piece with me. Text quoted here with his permission.
  6. Thank you to Michele Lowe for naming this and telling me to lighten up - humor can be a good thing.
  7. Story recounted by Pedro Bartes, 2017; https://tampabaysmix.iheart.com/content/2017-09-21-grandpa-was-dealing-with-unruly-kid-then-he-explained-his-method-oh-boy/
  8. McAdams D.P., Bowman P.J. 2001, Narrating life’s turning points: Redemption and contamination in McAdams D.P., Josselson R., Lieblich A. (eds), Turns in the Road: Narrative Studies of Lives in Transition. APA Books, Washington, DC, pp. 3–34. I originally found this piece in the NY Times, “We Want to Party and Travel. Hold that Thought,” by Emily Esfahani Smith, June 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/24/opinion/covid-pandemic-grief.html
  9. Original source: Death, by Rabbi Marc Saperstein, “Inscribed for Life or Death?” CCAR Journal (Summer 1981), p. 24-25, found in Mishkan HaNefesh, Rosh Hashanah Prayerbook (Gold), p. 179. https://www.ccarpress.org/content.asp?tid=349
  10. Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, The Narrative of Shmita. Found in a Sefaria Sourcesheet: Shmita: Rest for the Land! Rest for the Soul? Created by Bracha Jaffe: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/6897.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
  11. Reverend Jenny Smith; personal webpage: ​​https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/6897.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
  12. Arundhati Roy, Financial Times, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” April 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca
  13. NY Times, “We Want to Party and Travel. Hold that Thought,” by Emily Esfahani Smith, June 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/24/opinion/covid-pandemic-grief.html
  14. Thank you to my coach, Michele Lowe for her tireless support through multiple drafts of this sermon. Thank you to Temple member, Rachel Rynick for sharing her beautiful rendition of, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” with us as a sermon anthem.
Wed, June 29 2022 30 Sivan 5782