“P. S. – I LOVE YOU TEMPLE SINAI”

Part One

“THE GUMBO THAT IS LIFE”

A Sermon for the Eve of Rosh HaShanah 5776
September 13, 2015

Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn
Congregation Temple Sinai
New Orleans, Louisiana

What a joy and blessing it is to greet you on this Rosh Ha Shanah Eve 5776!  Hard to believe, that for 28 years it has been my privilege to share my heart and mind with you from this historic pulpit.  We come each year to ponder the perplexities and mysteries of our lives in this baffling and, yes, sometimes frightening world in which we live.

Of course too, this year will be a pivotal milestone for us all – rabbi and congregation.  My transition at the end of June from “Rabbi” to “Rabbi Emeritus” closes a most happy and transformative period in my life and in the life of this first Reform Temple of New Orleans.

We look with happy anticipation toward the election, later this year, of a new spiritual leader commencing a brand new and proud chapter in the life of our Temple Family.  There is no better time then for me to pledge my personal support and collegial assistance to whomever you honor with a call to this pulpit.

All of this naturally invites a certain amount of reflection upon where we began our journey together, the distance we have travelled, and what Congregation Temple Sinai aspires yet to become.

So, guess what?  During these past several months, I have taken home boxes of sermons from the 27 previous High Holy Day sermon series, all the sermons which I have delivered since Rosh HaShanah 5748-1987.

But, don’t go thinking that your Rabbi’s going to be preaching “The Best of Cohn” reruns during this year’s High Holy Days!  You know me better than that!  Because I cherish and highly prize the privilege of preaching, and am keenly aware that I have so many subjects and observations which I want to discuss with you, but alas, too few remaining occasions on which to share them.  We won’t waste our time with reruns!

On reading over those sermons, I was amazed at how forgettable some of them were!  Some of them, honest to goodness, I didn’t even remember preaching – but there were some terrific ones too!  You may even remember that on occasion, I would ask you to call up your friends from next door or across the world, even as far as Kenner, and tell them that “Ole Cohn was terrific!”

Good, bad or indifferent, remembering back, it’s not at all unexpected that each sermon was pretty impassioned.  Temple Sinai has a serious sermonic tradition.  Nothing casual or off the cuff is good enough, nor should it be – not here because you are a thoughtful congregation.  And re-reading those sermons, I think, at least to my heart and mind, what they represent is a 27 year highly personal letter addressed from your rabbi to you on our holiest of holy days.

On this 28th year, let me add a sermonic P.S., a post script, intended as a closing word to that long letter that we’ve been exchanging these many years.  A post script is a message appended below the writer’s signature, so this final series – “P.S. – I LOVE YOU TEMPLE SINAI” – affords me one more take, a closing perspective, if you will, on heartfelt and important subjects.

I know that I have aggravated some of you because of my politically liberal tendencies and may well yet again.  But really, what’s a rabbi worth who doesn’t take a principle stand on issues of conscience or who fails to address the day’s daunting challenges out of fear of criticism. Pity such a one!

Just recollect the astounding events and developments so earth-shatteringly wonderful, and too many of them, just unspeakably tragic which you and I have witnessed together.  I’m reminded of the story of Old Mendle on his death bed.

He had seen much suffering in his long years,
Golda, his wife, was seated on the edge of the bed  wiping his brow.  They had lived more than seventy
years together.

“Tell me, Golda, do you remember the horrible pogrom in our village in 1905?”

“Of course I remember.  I was with you through all that.”

“And, do you remember when the Bolsheviks beat me up in 1918?  Were you with me then?”

“Of course I was with you then, my love.”

“Were you with me in the Lemberg Ghetto?”

“Of course my love.  I’ve always been with you, always.”
And Mendle was silent for a moment then he looked at his loving wife.
“You see, Golda, I think you were bad luck.”

I pray you will not conclude as Mendle did of Golda, that I was bad luck since we and the world have gone through so much together!  In fact, references in those past sermons certainly do provide a walk back in time.

•    I remember us watching the Fall of the Berlin Wall during Hebrew School on a Wednesday afternoon in 1989 in utter amazement.
•    There was the First Intifada in December 1987 and the Second in 2000, followed by one Gaza conflict or war after the other until the most recent in 2014.
•    On the eve of a trip to Israel we grieved the murder of Yitzchak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel.  And some of us on a Temple Sinai trip stood at his grave the day after his funeral in 1995.
•    The 1990’s were full of anxious signs of terrorism that was to come –
•        Our office staff watched a T.V. in the bride’s room as reports came in on the Oklahoma City Bombing of the Murrah     Federal Building – 168 people, 19 of them     under 6 years of age were killed.
•    The First World Trade Center Bombing in February 1993.
•    There was the 1995 O.J. Murder Trial, and the trial we all went through with the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1996.
•    The arrival of the Millennium on New Year’s Eve 2000 did not trigger worldwide computer havoc as predicated.  But the year 2000 created a lot of havoc.
We grieved the Columbine tragedy followed by Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown and Mother Emanuel just months ago in Charleston – Still nothing done – for meaningful gun restriction.  And, right in Lafayette too just weeks ago, another theatre of blood.
2000 also brought us Bush v. Gore – no comment!
•    Even though we were deeply shocked to watch the Columbia Shuttle disintegrate in 2003 over Texas and Louisiana, we were witnesses to so many miraculous and unthinkable mindblowing lifesaving advances throughout those years.  There was the Smart Phone, to which we now pay such supreme attention, missing out on a large portion of the real world within us. Yes, with The Truman Show – the birth of reality media took place!
•    There was the birth too of the 24/7 Cable News Cycle.
•    Facebook was created by a nerd in his Harvard dorm room in 2004.  But of course the internet had already transformed the way people all over the world do business, from corporate Mega Deals to family grocery shopping.
But now, the major and Earth shattering events in our Nation and our home –
•    Of course, 9/11 was this nation’s darkest day and it challenged everything.  We went to war, only we have not yet been able to locate and engage the enemy.  Like a Sci-Fi thriller, the “bad guys” only morph into groups with greater stealth and more vicious and primitive instincts and misbehavior.
And thus began the War on Terror because of which so many of us feel so vulnerable. Shoes off in airports, belts, hats, pockets, hands above the heads.
As Jews we understand vulnerability.  After killing the 12 staffers at the Charlie Hebdo Magazine, four Parisian Jews shopping for Shabbat were next.  For the first time since the Holocaust, the synagogues of Paris were closed because of terrorism.
Yes, the malignant man made evils of our world seem to be metastasizing. But there are so-called “acts of God” too.
•    And, we just commemorated the 10th anniversary of Katrina last month.

Looking back, I realize that the first 18 years of my rabbinate here with you, was really only preparatory for what we would need to do together to address our needs – economic, physical, emotional and to be sure, spiritual, following America’s greatest natural disaster.

Of course, there’s no reason to forget good news. We also managed to win the Super Bowl in 2010 as our great Saints team brought us tremendous pride and celebration.

At the top of my list of Good News, there is the remarkable evolution of GLBTQ Rights in this great nation.  Do you know that in 1987, shortly after my arrival, I announced a sermon, titled “Adam and Steve.”  The title upon the St. Charles Avenue directory board received not a small degree of discussion and controversy.

The job is not over! True, twenty eight years later, the marriage of Adam and Steve has been supported by the Supreme Court of the land.  Only a battle won!  The next is to target discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, amending the 1964 Civil Rights Act to broaden protections of employment, housing and qualifying lines of credit!

You know what we have here in this admittedly incomplete list of the events of 28 years?  We have proof of the Gumbo of Life!  The Gumbo of Life:  bitter and sweet, contrasting moods and emotions, the glory and the disgrace, the noble and the ignoble!  It’s all there in your life and mine.  Just as the poet Blake put it –

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine,
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe, . . .

Now take a closer look at that woe! The tzorus of life.

As we noted with Katrina, sometimes our world is so uncertain and scarred by nature’s indifference to our preference for compassion, for order and security. There is the rage of nature to which we are so eminently vulnerable – Typhoons, hurricanes and heart attacks – these have no conscience and absolutely NOTHING to do with God’s will, it must be emphasized!

But surely it is the brutality of human nature which more deeply scars this world. Mutilations by terrorists and genocidal rulers, masquerading as pious acts of the supremely faithful, but in reality, brazen greed, vengeance and unbridled arrogance – none of such brutality was as commonplace when we met in 1987. Beheadings were references to the wives of Henry VIII.

I often see anxiety and frustration on your faces on Shabbos evenings.  We are weary of Breaking News!  I also see on your faces, the shock of unexpected personal trials and losses in your life. Recently, I found direction in a poem titled, “A Brief for the Defense,” by the poet Jack Gilbert.  Listen to this short portion:

Sorrow everywhere. . .
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants…

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,  we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight.  We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness.  . . .

To make injustice the only measure
of our attention is to praise the Devil.  . . .
We must admit there will be music despite everything.

You know, the more I read that poem the more I began to think it could have been written by Tevyah from “Fiddler on the Roof.”  It surely describes his approach to the GUMBO THAT IS LIFE.  Despite every hardship, Tevyah reminds us that in these 27 years there have been so many happy wedding couples, baby blessings, B’nai Mitzvah, 25th and 50th anniversaries and not a few 100th Birthday Parties!  No matter what, the Jewish recipe for life’s Gumbo includes a lot of honey on that slice of apple!

And our Jewish way is one of open eyed gratitude for those times when through pure grace, we escaped pain and averted trial and hardship.

Our new Prayer Book includes this prayer, which I personally know applies to a goodly number of us. It is the traditional Gomeil prayer now restored to our liturgy. And here are the words recited after the Torah is read:

Rav Judah said in the name of Rav:
“Who should offer thanksgiving?
Those who have completed an arduous voyage,
those who have recovered from an illness or injury,
and prisoners who have been set free.”

In the midst of the congregation,
we honor those who have come through
times of challenge, difficulty, or danger.

This prayer continues…

Today we celebrate their survival.
Together we give thanks:
for the resilience of the body,
for the strength of the human spirit;
for the precious gift of life,
experienced with new intensity when life has been at risk.

To be sure, of course, we need to fight back against the forces of evil.  We are to heal the sick, restore the broken, free the captives, and comfort the broken hearted.  And yet too – our Judaism insists that we still toast L’Chayim – to life!

But Rabbi, you say, what about the battle between good and evil, hope and hopelessness?  Oh, dear friends you can be sure that battle will go on, it must, and as Jews, we must be among those who resolutely wage it.  We will confront what is evil and we will celebrate what is good.

But remember this in this New Year, just now arrived, go ahead and risk delight!  Whatever wholesome delight means to you, risk delight!  Celebrate and savor that joy and love which still await our eager embrace.

It will not defeat ISIL, nor will it discover the cure for disease, but embrace delight, my dear ones, for it will revive your spirit in this brand new year, and renew your resolve to do the work that is yours to do!
Load up the apple with honey, and perhaps with a taste of sweet wine, and may we each find abundant delight in this New Year!
With all my love,
Amen.