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Ta Shema: October 27, 2022

Fighting for Home

(The following is Rabbi Bender's Sermon from Yom Kippur morning)

This past secular new year, I made a resolution to read more books. In 2021, between Shlomi, and well, Shlomi, I almost got through one book. This year, my 17th book, which I read because it was a New York Times Bestseller and was being made into a movie, was “Where the Crawdads Sing.” It is a story about a girl, Kya Clark, who survived by herself, against all odds, in her abandoned childhood home in the North Carolina marsh. Her father never recovered from his time in the armed service. One by one his wife and all of his adult and teenage children leave. Then he leaves as well. And this 6 year old girl survives by mimicry. She remembers that Ma used to make grits in the morning for breakfast, and through trial and error she teaches herself how to cook. She remembers how her brother used to go fishing in the marsh, and after a few wrong turns, she figures out how to get the boat running and becomes master of the marsh's mazes. She remembers how her father would collect mussels for extra cash, and so she teaches herself how to collect and competitively (working in competition with the local fishermen) sell mussels at the local fill up station next to the dock. 

I will not give away spoilers of this fantastic book, but she fights her entire life in order to tend to and keep what is most important to her in the world, the only constant she has ever had in her life, her home. She hides from social workers who want to get her into a group home and to start school. She fights to keep this family land when it becomes clear that the owners have not paid back taxes in generations. She fights with her very life for her entire life. Now, us responsible adults, especially those of use who are mandated reporters, can easily critique these methods of survival. We can easily judge the few caring adults in her life who helped her get extra food and clothes while also not helping to place her in proper care.

But this is a novel. Kya is written as much as a child as she is a metaphor for the lengths we could, or perhaps should, go to in order to fight for what is most important in our lives. To fight for our home.

It is important to the narrative that she is a child. Children see things both simply and profoundly. They don’t have as much baggage as we do as adults. They don’t overthink things, and yet they care very deeply, they are connected.

My daughter, for instance, loves deeply and fully. She knows who the important people are in her life because she bothers to learn their names. Mama and Yaya, the names she used for myself and Emily, were her first words at 7 and 8 months old. She gives kisses to her family members, even over screen time. Gone are the days she will be held by just anyone. She only wants to be held by those she feels safe with. And I do not think she stays up late at night agonizing over whether or not she should have let the stranger at the grocery store hold her. It is innate. 

Have you ever heard the idiom “From the mouth of babes”? People sometimes say it when little children say truly wise things, perhaps accidentally, but the message hits somewhere deep in the heart of the adult listener. I remember when I told my baby sister, who was four at the time, that Emily and I would be getting married she took a long pause. At first she looked upset. Then something seemed to click in her mind. She said, “Oh! People marry people!” and just continued to play with her toys. From the mouth of babes! If only little kids were running the world, we would be rid of so much adult-driven bigotry.

This phrase comes from Psalm 8:3:

"From the mouths of infants and sucklings

You have founded strength on account of Your foes,

to put an end to enemy and avenger"

Psalms agrees with me about children running the world. Psalms is saying that the words that come out of the mouth of children are of pure intention. That the wisdom of young children has the power to end all war, all struggle. But this end of war and struggle is not passive. The words of children strengthen us to be able to fight back. To fight for what is most important in our lives. In the case of Psalm 8, what are they trying to fight for? Home. A place that is theirs’ in this world–a home where they can be surrounded both by the wonder of nature and the threat of an enemy on the outside. With the wisdom of children, they will have the upper hand. They will be able to fight for home.

And so Kya fought for her home because it was written into her DNA. As a six year old girl, she didn't think about it as the last link between her and her family. She didn’t think about it being the remaining hope that someone would come care for her. It was just all she knew. And so, she fought like the infants and sucklings of Psalm 8. She found the strength to do so within the simplicity of her wisdom as a child. Home for young kids is the place to keep their footing when the rest of the world seems to keep growing and shifting around them. It is where they plant their feet to not fall through the crack of the shifting tectonic plates of their ever changing lives. Home is their constant. Home, that stability, that sense of self is meant to be fought for. It is why kids sometimes fight changes in their lives. What might seem like not a big deal to an adult could be earth shattering to a child. But they always have home. The familiar site of home. The familiar sounds of the house’s unique creaks. The familiar smells of their loved ones' perfume or cologne. The familiar feel of their favorite chair. The familiar tastes of family recipes.

The familiar, the safety, it is worth fighting for, especially when home has been threatened in some way. On Erev Rosh Hashana, I spoke of the Jews returning home to the rebuilt second temple to resume their lifestyle and worship. But you also know from my second day Rosh Hashanah speech that no story is ever that simple.

In the book of Nehemia, we learn that the Jews themselves were able to help in the rebuilding of the Temple. In chapter four we learn that when the Jews were beginning to heal from their past wounds by rebuilding the temple’s outer walls brick by brick, it angered the enemies of Israel, as we see in verse 1:

"When [the enemies of Israel] Sanballat and Toviah, and the Aravim, the Ammonim, and the Ashdodim [basically the enemies on all sides of Jerusalem] heard that healing had come to the walls of Jerusalem, that the breached parts had begun to be filled, it angered them very much, (2) and they all conspired together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to throw it into confusion."

The people building the walls were scared, because they were not soldiers trained for battle. They were artisans, come to do the holy work of putting the Temple back together. They didn’t know what to do to fight against every enemy on all sides.

But Nehemia gives them a pep talk a few verses later, Chapter 4: 8-9:

“Do not be afraid of them! Think of the great and awesome Lord, and fight for your brothers, your sons and daughters, your wives and homes!” (9) When our enemies learned that it had become known to us, since God had thus frustrated their plan, we could all return to the wall, each to his work."

Nehemia tells them–don’t think. You are overthinking. You are doing what adults always do. You are giving me all the reasons you can’t do it, but aren’t acting out of instinct, the innate drive to protect. So he reminds them what they are fighting for. It is not a war between the enemies of Israel and the artisans. It is a fight for the artisans to protect what they value the most–God, siblings, children, spouses, and home. And all they needed to do was shift their thinking from flight to fight, and just that shift made their enemies back away.

But the story does not stop there. As the artisans continued their work to rebuild the wall, they never forgot the lesson that Nehemia taught them. They never forgot what they were fighting for. So, from then on, they made steps to ensure that with each and every brick, they rebuilt into both their minds and the structure, that ongoing fight for home. 

The text continues:

"(10) From that day on, half my servants did work and half held lances and shields, bows and armor. And the officers stood behind the whole house of Judah (11) who were rebuilding the wall. The basket-carriers were burdened, doing work with one hand while the other held a weapon. (12) As for the builders, each had his sword girded at his side as he was building. The trumpeter stood beside me."

In case your mind already went there, this text is often used to textually justify why we have strong security measures in place. And to digress we have incredible security measures in place at this synagogue, all of which only lend to the sanctity of this space–so we can gather and worship without fear. 

But the Tanakh is also a written document. These armed artisans are as much people as they are a metaphor for the lengths we could, or perhaps should, go to in order to fight for what is most important in our lives. To fight for our home. That we build into the very foundation of our homes and in the continued upkeep of our homes the drive to fight for our home not once but every day. To fight for it until it becomes innate.

The congregation knows a lot about fighting for home. When I came here, it is true that you were in the process of rebuilding this home from Hurricane Florence. But you were also rebuilding this home in other ways, trying to come together as a congregation after  a few years of uncertainty, as well as navigate a search for a new rabbi, while also figuring out how to keep the synagogue up and operational during Covid. 

And in the last two years, we have physically and spiritually rebuilt this synagogue. We have ridden the many waves of Covid. We navigated going virtual, going hybrid, and getting back in person.

All of that was a fight response. All of that was the innate, childlike drive to not see this ship sink. To make sure that 124 years of history did not collapse, like so many other houses of worship did during this time. You fought for your home. This home. This physical and spiritual home.

But I am asking you to keep fighting. Yes, I am asking a room full of people with opinions to keep fighting. I do not mean to be nasty and inflammatory. I do not mean to pick a fight or to be confrontational. I am asking you to recognize that this home is a living organism. It can never stop growing. And so, our work of rebuilding is never done. Therefore, never stop fighting.

Never stop fighting for the programs that would bring you and your friends out in droves. If there is a program you feel is missing, fight for it! Help bring in that visiting artist. Help bring in that scholar in residence. Help plan or host that social hour. Just tell me what day you want to lead services or what services you want to learn how to lead. 

Don’t kvetch! Organize! Fight! 

And I will be your Nehemia. Galvanizing you when you don’t quite trust the next steps you need to take. Fighting alongside you and for you.

Fight alongside, not against. Fight together, one hand with the sword and the other laying bricks.

Your ideas, your feedback, your participation are the key missing pieces in our foundation. What you share will never be taken as a personal attack or criticism. It will always be received with excitement–excitement that you trusted me enough to be real with me and share a piece of you, as well as an open heart, and listening ears.

Something that I am trying to learn from our living inspirations, our children, is to be open to every interaction being one where I, where we, can learn from, if we banish our “cant's” and are open to what might be.

Living with childlike wonder is the key to our lifelong fight for home. I had the privilege of getting to know, and the pain of losing such a person in our congregation this year. Dee Sherman, of blessed memory, had a number of conversations with me before she passed. All of those conversations are private and will be gifts I keep with me forever. She shared with me a poem that she loved from the High Holiday liturgy. She loved it so much that she wanted it to be read at her memorial. This poem by Rabbi Alvin Fine is in our Machzor on page 241, as part of the Vidui, confessional section. The poem is meant to remind us of our vulnerabilities, make us aware that we will fail, and sometimes we will fail in ways that make us really stumble and fall. But this is a part of the learning process of life. This is the sacred dance we do as we live, as we grow and mature from childhood to adulthood. 

 

"Birth is a beginning

And death a destination.

And life is a journey:

From childhood to maturity

And youth to age;

From innocence to awareness

And ignorance to knowing;

From foolishness to discretion

And then, perhaps to wisdom;

From weakness to strength

Or strength to weakness–

And often, back again;

From health to sickness

And back, we pray, to health again;

From offense to forgiveness,

From loneliness to love,

From joy to gratitude,

From pain to compassion,

And grief to understanding–

From fear to faith;

From defeat to defeat to defeat–

Until, looking backward or ahead,

We see that victory lies

Not at some high place along the way,

But in having made the journey, stage by stage,

A sacred pilgrimage.

Birth is a beginning

And death a destination.

And life is a journey,

A sacred pilgrimage."

Life is a journey, from defeat-to defeat-to defeat. Those were the lines that our friend Dee most held to her heart. They were the lines she most remembered and quoted from the poem. But that is the point. We can measure life in a lot of ways. All musical theater nerds who know the song, Seasons of Love, can list now all of the many creative ways that life can be measured:

"In daylights, in sunsets

In midnights, in cups of coffee

In inches, in miles

In laughter, in strife"

From defeat-to defeat-to defeat. Defeat does not have to be negative. Defeat helps us fight even stronger. When Kya burned her first cup of grits, she experimented with more water. She fought to make it better. 

Defeat inspires us to grow beyond our comfort zone. When the artisans saw that they were not prepared for potential battle, they figured out a way to both build and ward off enemies at the same time. 

This year, please fight. Fight for this congregation to never be in a place of stagnation. Fight, with your innate childlike impulse, for this to be a home worth fighting for. 

Gmar Chatimah Tovah, may you be sealed for a good life, but a balanced life, filled with defeat-to defeat-to defeat.

Sun, March 3 2024 23 Adar I 5784