A man takes his dog to a veteranarian, saying, “Doc, my dog has a problem.”
The vet replies, “So what’s the problem.”
“First you gotta know,” says the man, “that I’m a congregant at Congregation Or Ami and this is a Jewish dog. And he has a problem.”
“Okay, what’s going on?” the vet asks.
“Watch this!” Morty points to the dog and says: “Bagel, fetch!”
The dog looks up and goes, “What? You only talk to me when you want something? That’s no way to treat a dog. And the sleeping arrangements. I’m not happy with them. It’s a hard floor, and I got arthritis and it hurts me all night. And the food. Don’t get me started with the food. It comes from a bag. It’s hard and tastes like dreck! You could add a little flavor with it. And let’s talk about the walk. It’s outside, a little, tinkle, and I’m back in. We coil stretch. I got the sciatica, all day up and down the leg, it’s hurting me. If it were up to you, you’d want me to play dead, for real.”
The vet is astonished and says. “I have never seen a dog like this. So what’s the problem?”
The man says, “Obviously he has a hearing problem! Because I said ‘fetch,’ not kvetch!”
Who remembers the slide we put up at the end of each High Holy Day service? That one that says, “Kvell, don’t kvetch – Praise, don’t complain.”
That is some great advice that transcends the High Holy Days. Yet it’s especially challenging to do so these past few years because these last eighteen months have provided us all with so much to kvetch about. In fact, the sermon I’m about to give is the seventh sermon I’ve written for Rosh Hashana. Like Genesis’ seven days of Creation during which the Holy One crafted the universe, those seven sermons each began with a litany of the frustrations and horrors of the last few years that so many of us want to complain about, and that we need to wrestle with. Like:
645,000 American Covid deaths, four and a half million deaths worldwide, Countless ill and suffering.
Did you know 1.2 million acres of California have been destroyed by raging wildfires in 2021 alone, a 63.9% increase over the previous 5 year average, which combined with the escalation of flooding and hurricanes, makes a strong case for the existential need to address climate change now.
And rising antisemitism with the shootings, assaults, harassments, and swastikas. Those people who are doing this are trying to hide behind anti-Israel hatred. When will they figure out that while criticism of Israel’s government can be legitimate, we know they are just using Israel as a shield for their hatred and antisemitism. This explosion of hatred and antisemitism coming from all extremes of the political spectrum testifies to the truism that whenever people are downtrodden in a seemingly inescapable situation, we Jews are too often end up being the scapegoats.
Of course, this rides on the back of rising hatred toward a multiplicity of groups: Asian Americans, LGBTQ individuals, black and brown people, Muslims, and others. Our human propensity to hate or hide behind our denial of such racism, deserves attention…
And what’s happening in Texas, where under the guise of religious freedom, our religious freedom is being taken away, because the Torah, Talmud, later Codes, and Responsa even today say that reproductive choice – abortion – needs to be available. But when you take it away, or make it almost impossible, you are taking away our Jewish religious freedom.
And especially frustrating is this Covid ping pong game of “we’re coming back”, “no we’re not”, “yes we are,” “no, we’re not” that we have endured for eighteen months until the surging Delta variant combined with unconscionable anti-vax and anti-masks movements, have again endangered our loved ones’ lives.
There is so much frustration. So much to worry about. Of course, we want to kvetch. More, we want to talk about it. But let’s not today.
Those could not be the foci of the first sermon of 5782 because we Jews are a people who have faced the vicissitudes of life – the ups and downs and ups and downs – and each time, what do we do? We push forward l’chaim, to life. Without hiding our heads in the sand, we dig deep to discover what is kvell-worthy. So will you kvell with me?
Kvell that we are here whether in person or on livestream.
Will you kvell with me that our Or Ami community Is inspiring people all over the country and world.
Kvell that we can still be together, whether you are praying in-person, or couch-comfortably from your home, or while healing in the hospital, or as college students, seeking some connection while far away from home.
Kvell that our amazing Cantor Doug Cotler, while in mourning, is leading us with soulfulness, nonetheless.
And most importantly, kvell that the Holy One has endowed us with health, wisdom, and perseverance to reach hayom, this day.
To be a Jew or part of a Jewish community is to imagine a better existence for ourselves and others, and to be able to stand up, speak up, and lift up others in pursuit of a hopeful vision.
The challenge of course is how do we get there. How can we find uplift and hope at a time that so many of you have told me that so often feels so demoralizing and depressing? Today’s Unetaneh Tokef prayer offers us three responses to the challenges of life: teshuva, repairing relationships; tzedaka, giving of our time, energy and money to lift others up; and tefila, strengthening our spirituality, our heart-center, our core. Our rabbis intended that these actions would serve as significant yet simple steps to keep us centered, sincere, and celebratory.
In fact, engaging in teshuva, tefila, and tzedaka, is easier than it seems. Most of us learned how to do this back when we were young. It was easier then, before adulthood conspired to catapult us toward self-centeredness, cynicism, and xenophobia based in greed.
If we really want to do the work of these High Holy Days, especially making teshuva – from the root word shuv – meaning “to turn”… If we want turn back to who we could be – who we should be – maybe we just need to remember what we were taught way back when we were young.
With thanks to author and clergy person Robert Fulghum and his work, All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten, let me suggest how we do this. Imagine if everybody just did this:
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
And clean up your own mess.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
And wash your hands … a lot.
[Remember that] Warm cookies and cold milk are food for you (If anyone’s interested, I’m partial to homemade gooey chocolate chip cookies).
Live a balanced life- learn some and think some and draw and paint some and sing and dance some and play and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
Remember: goldfish, hamsters and white mice and even the little seeds in those styrofoam cups- they all die… So do we. [So live a life that you’re proud of so that when you do die, you will be remembered for your legacy of tzedek/justice and chesed/kindness.]
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
And here is the one that escapes us adults so easily: Yirah/awe. Be aware of wonder. Take in the beauty of Existence, gaze deeply, exhale fully, laugh like you mean it, and move to the music.
Take any of those kindergarten lessons and extend them to adulthood, applying them to your family life, your work, our government, or our world and they still hold true…
And this still holds true too: no matter how old you are – when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.
But listen, if we want to get through this, don’t just hold hands with the people you know, the people you like, the people who believe what you believe. If we don’t want to blow things up – this country, our world – then let’s hold hands also with those you don’t, and those who seem initially very different from you and even those whose opinions are hard to hear. So let’s all hold hands (perhaps metaphorically for a bit), like kindergartners on our best behavior.
Then we will surely have much to kvell about, as we count our many blessings, as we share our bounty with others, and as we offer thanks for the goodness in our lives.
L’shana Tova tikateivu. May you be written for a good year in the Book of Life!
And perhaps that will happen if we go back to basics. If we go back to kindergarten and be our best selves. And let’s take this world back to where it needs to be.
All of my sermons are born out of the combined efforts of my mind, and the wisdom of family and friends. This sermon arose out of a conversation between my wife Michelle November, my father-in-law Murray November, and me. I thank them for the inspiration.