Rabbi David M. Glickman
Rosh HaShanah Day 1 – White Theater 5777
This past spring marked the fifteenth Anniversary of my ordination as a rabbi. A friend of mine and I were talking recently: do you think they’d notice if we recycled one sermon? After all, I’ve been a rabbi for 15 years – and only in Kansas City for four? What would be the harm in dusting off a good one from a few years back.
We are living in historic times right now. Regardless of how you may vote, just imagine our past and be aware that this November there is the possibility of America electing its first African-American President!
In fact, I am going to share with you a piece of a sermon I delivered eleven years ago. If you want to read the entire sermon, it will available on my section of the synagogue’s website.
Eleven years ago, I delivered a sermon titled “Private Pain; Private Prayers.” It was the most personal drasha I had ever given.
The summer of 2009, we gave birth to Ellie after years of infertility, and we also buried my brother, Daniel.
In the Rosh HaShanah sermon I delivered eleven years ago, I said:
After years of praying, months of treatment on and off, the emotional cycles of up and down, we sigh with relief. Beyond the acupuncture we tried, there is no rational explanation why the month we conceived Ellie was successful. So we are simply grateful.
And at the same time, while we rejoiced, we knew that for every one of us there were probably a dozen couples crying inside.
The silence of prayer is what bound our prayers for Eliora and our prayers for Daniel together.
When I wrote those words, I wrote them on the cusp of jubilation and of desperation. We thought that we would never have more than one child until Ellie was born; at the same time, the pain from losing my brother Daniel was a like a blinding light that prohibited me from seeing anything else through it.
Eleven years later, both Annie and I have each found ways of growing from that moment. When we were blessed with a third child, Daniela, we named for her uncle Danny whom I spoke about at that long-ago Rosh HaShanah. Also, we sought a way to say thank you.
In Judaism, the way to say thank you is to give to others. When God saves the Jewish people in the Book of Esther, we offer no sacrifices nor pat ourselves on the back, instead we give food to our neighbors and money to the poor. This is the Jewish way to celebrate.
The best way to express gratitude is not to shout out thank you, but give to another. We wanted to give to others so that they, too, could have children.
We began a tzedakah in Dallas called Priya, which comes from the Hebrew phrase פרו ורבו “Be Fruitful and Multiply.”
Recently, Annie received a grant from our alma mater, JTS so that we could begin Priya here in Kansas City. We created these Priya funds, where Jewish families who themselves were barren, were uprooted, could get a little bit of support and help. Priya in Kansas City is a partnership with the Kansas City Jewish Foundation, Jewish Family Services, and provides both counseling and financial support for any self-defined Jewish family – single, straight, gay – who needs help with fertility treatments, IVF or adoption.
Now, with the efforts of both of these Priya funds, there are close to a dozen additional Jewish babies in the world.
A dozen new Jewish souls that are parts of synagogues, going to religious schools, going to Jewish camps. Simply because of the generosity of others.
In today’s Torah reading, we read God remembered Sarah. Today, we are all like Sarah; and we can all potentially be like God.
We are all like Sarah. We are all like God. What does this mean? In a sense, we all suffer from infertility, and we all have the potential to remember our covenantal mission of reproduction like God does at the start of our Torah reading.
What do I mean when I say we all suffer from infertility? To some degree, I say this because infertility is a hidden suffering where there are few safe spaces to talk about it. Like many challenges that individuals in the Jewish community face – anything that takes us away from our perception of perfection we find difficult to talk about.
But, in a very real way, when we as a people don’t produce more of ourselves, Judaism is suffering from infertility. Right now, our average fertility rate is 1.8 or so children per couple – and that includes the Orthodox who are having 6 or more children per family.
Collectively, as a Jewish community, we so often intone the words, “l’dor va-dor” – from generation to generation. We spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on schools, camps and Israel trips. But, what we are not focusing on is who will fill them?
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the remarks: “Oh rabbi, we used to have hundreds of kids in our Hebrew school.” Or, “You wouldn’t believe how many kids were in our confirmation pictures.”
Though there are many social scientists try to pin this population decline on various bogeymen – intermarriage, disconnection, apathy – there is a very real decline in the number of children that we as a Jewish community have. And it has never become a front-burner issue for the Jewish community.
I believe that, whether we are conscious of it or not, collectively we are all going through some of the pain of Sarah from our Rosh HaShanah Torah reading. The pain is seeing the future tragically unlike the one we imagined for ourselves.
The Sarah who we meet in today’s Torah reading is the Sarah of hope. She is the Sarah who has been remembered by God. But, when we first meet her several chapters earlier, she is despondent.
This is the Torah’s first description of Sarah:
וַתְּהִ֥י שָׂרַ֖י עֲקָרָ֑ה אֵ֥ין לָ֖הּ וָלָֽד
Sarai is akara – barren – she had no offspring.
This word, akara, is translated as “barren,” but it comes from the word “l’a’kor – to uproot.” Sarah is uprooted, she has no offspring.
The common image for offspring is the fruit or the branches of the tree. But in Judaism, the next generation is our roots – not our branches. It is the next generation that gives us the nourishment for life.
When Annie and I started Priya, we learned that we were actually finding a way for the American Jewish community to catch up in a small way with the State of Israel. In Israel, the national health insurance program grants unlimited IVFs (In Vitro Fertilization) up to two live births for every couple regardless of religion.
Israel, though, is also behind the times, as they do not allow gay couples to use Israeli surrogates. This is why so many Israeli gay couples have children through surrogates in the United States. In a broadcast on Oregon Public Radio earlier this year about gay parents using Oregon-based surrogates, quoted the couple:
But they nod at the joke that Jews don’t have just 10 commandments — they have 11, and the 11th commandment states: Thou Shalt Have Children … even if you’re gay.
Jewish infertility is a topic about which I personally am passionate to be certain, but on this – the largest audience of the year – why would I speak about this? There are so many topics in the headlines in the news that are dominating our conversations. Why speak about something that seems so narrow?
I am reminded of a sign that hung in a shul I used to go to in Jerusalem. The sign said: “If you talk here, where do you pray?” I could phrase it: If we only talk politics in synagogue, where do we discuss the ultimate issues for the Jewish people?
Though Jewish Infertility – both Annie and my struggles with it, and our collective struggle – actually have much more far reaching implications. The two ideas I would want to leave you with are these:
You never know what pain the person next to you is praying about, and we never know how that pain will transform us. Jewish infertility is a small piece of a bigger question: do we care enough about ourselves and the mission of the Jewish people to continue for another generation?
The Haftarah that we read today, was about Hannah praying to be able to have a child. We see the pain and the triumph in her prayers. At the beginning of the Haftarah she cries out:
וְהִ֖יא מָ֣רַת נָ֑פֶשׁ וַתִּתְפַּלֵּ֥ל עַל־יְהוָ֖ה וּבָכֹ֥ה תִבְכֶּֽה׃
In her wretchedness, she prayed to the LORD, weeping all the while.
After being blessed with the boy who will become the prophet Samuel we she prays:
וַתִּתְפַּלֵּ֤ל חַנָּה֙ וַתֹּאמַ֔ר עָלַ֤ץ לִבִּי֙ בַּֽיהוָ֔ה רָ֥מָה קַרְנִ֖י בַּֽה׳ רָ֤חַב פִּי֙ עַל־א֣וֹיְבַ֔י כִּ֥י שָׂמַ֖חְתִּי בִּישׁוּעָתֶֽךָ׃
And Hannah prayed: My heart exults in the LORD; I have triumphed through the LORD. I gloat over my enemies; I rejoice in Your deliverance.
This much I promise you, today on Rosh HaShanah, this room is filled with prayers. There are people next to you who are celebrating triumphs and coping with pain that you may never know about.
There is someone on your aisle today who is struggling with illness. There is someone in this room today who is yearning to have children. There is someone here today who lost a job and doesn’t know how to cover the bills. There is someone here today rejoicing for a clean bill of health. There are many people here today who have an empty seat on their row for a loved who died this past year.
When we are longing, we think that we are alone. There is nobody else like us. But, Hannah’s prayer reminds us that this hall today is filled with prayer. There are joys and pains, anxieties and triumphs. There are prayers being offered in faithfulness, and prayers being offered in doubt. There are prayers that will begin with Baruch Atah, and prayers that begin with “If I believed in You, this is what I would say….”
But there is another reason to speak about fertility on this Birth-day of the world. Focusing on creating life speaks to our mission as a Jewish people.
הַעִידֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּֽחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—
We have the opportunity to choose life, and even if we are beyond the years of having children, even if we were never able to have children, we can be partners in creation. We can help the community add life.
The Talmud teaches us that there are several questions that we will be asked when we reach the gates of heaven. One of them is:
עסקת בפריה ורביה
“Did you participate in being fruitful and multiplying?”
The question is simply: Did you participate in being fruitful and multiplying? The Talmud doesn’t say: If you were a straight couple of child-bearing age did you participate in being fruitful and multiplying? The Talmud doesn’t say: if you have no medical challenges, did you participate in being fruitful and multiplying? The Talmud doesn’t say: If you are financially successful did you participate in being fruitful and multiplying?
This is a question for all of us. Every age, every gender, every sexual orientation, whether or not we’ve had our own children or not – are we participating in the national mission to keep the Jewish people’s covenant living and vibrant for another generation.
The desire to have children, and the desire for others in our community to have children, represents a deep national longing to have our people’s stories and our people’s values perpetuated for another generation. These stories and these values can’t live without more of us.
This is the brit – the covenant that God makes with Sarah. Abraham often gets the credit and the limelight on Rosh HaShanah, but I think the focus really needs to be on Sarah.
This is not a modern feminist critique of the tradition, it is how the Torah itself describes God’s plan.
A few chapters before today’s Torah reading, God says:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתְּךָ֔ לֹא־תִקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמָ֖הּ שָׂרָ֑י כִּ֥י שָׂרָ֖ה שְׁמָֽהּ׃ (טז) וּבֵרַכְתִּ֣י אֹתָ֔הּ וְגַ֨ם נָתַ֧תִּי מִמֶּ֛נָּה לְךָ֖ בֵּ֑ן וּבֵֽרַכְתִּ֙יהָ֙ וְהָֽיְתָ֣ה לְגוֹיִ֔ם מַלְכֵ֥י עַמִּ֖ים מִמֶּ֥נָּה יִהְיֽוּ
And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. (16) I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her.”
When we – either as individuals, or as a community are not reproducing in the way we had hoped, we are all like Sarah. We become trapped in our barrenness; lost from our uprooted-ness.
When we remember those who are struggling to have children, or those grandparents longing to have grandchildren, or those community leaders who dream of having classrooms filled with new children – we are like God. When we hear the pain of longing, we are remembering Sarah. We are remembering our own promise to keep our story going.
God remembering Sarah helps us move forward. When we remember the Sarahs in our community, when we hear the crying out, we are acting out like God. When we don’t wallow in longing, but act to help, we are saying saying that:
God and we want another generation of idol smashers like Abraham.
God and we want another generation of prophetesses like Miriam.
God and we want another generation heroes like Rabbi Akiba
God and we want another generation of thinkers like Maimonides
God and we want another generation of dreamers like Herzl
God and we want another generation of witnesses like Wiesel
This year, I want to wish us all the blessing of life. I pray that we not only be inscribed in the book of life as individuals, but may the Jewish people be inscribed in the book of life. May we as a people continue to live fully, and experience rebirth and renewal in all the ways that we cry out to God today.