Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


A conservative colleague told me that before he begins his sermon on the 1st day of Rosh Hashanah, he asks everyone to take out their cell phones to check if they have turned it off. “Because,” as he says, “any cell phones that go off for the remainder of this sermon will be used during our Tashlich service later today.” I’m not saying that you have brought your cell phones with you on Rosh Hashanah, but a word to the wise is sufficient!

I was a little nervous this morning before coming to shule on this 1st day of Rosh Hashanah and then I remembered what Dr. Mehmet Oz, an impressive medical expert, said on the Oprah show: “The way to achieve inner peace is to finish all the things you have started and have never finished.”

So, in an attempt to calm myself this morning, I looked around my house to see all the things I started and hadn’t finished. So before leaving the house I finished off a bottle of Zinfandel left over from last night’s dinner, a bottle of single malt scotch, a package of Oreos, the remainder of someone’s old painkiller prescription, the rest of the cheesecake, some Doritos, and a box of chocolates. And somehow it worked. You have no idea how freaking good I feel right now!

Seriously, while I might be riding high at the moment, sadly it’s not the case for so many. Rosh Hashanah brings with it the close of the summer and this has been for many “the summer of our discontent.” President Barak Obama’s “summer of recovery,” according to economists, has morphed into a summer of discontent amid anxiety over the weakening economy. Almost everything that is supposed to be up—the economic growth rate, the stock market, bond yields—is down. And almost everything that is supposed to be down—unemployment, mortgage delinquencies—is up. Many of us are hurting, just when we expected things would get better. The sense of disappointment is profound. And so I thought I’d to talk with you this morning about our disappointments and the false beliefs behind them.

         The doctor calls with bad news: “I’m sorry. It’s advanced cancer and there’s nothing we can do.

  • Perhaps you spent years saving money to buy a new house, only to discover that the foundation is cracked or that you’re under water with the mortgage.
  • You finally got that new job you were dreaming of and 6 months later lost it because the company was downsizing.
  •  Perhaps you got married and found that he really wasn’t perfect and he found out the same thing about you.
  • Or your wife tells you she wants a divorce after 25 years of marriage.
  • Your oldest daughter moves out after a disagreement, and now she’s living with her boyfriend.
  • Your wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
  • When the stock market went south, you lost 60% of your retirement account.

Most of us have had these kinds of experiences at least once, and some of us have been down that road many times. And we cry out, “Dear Gd, what’s happening?”

Judaism teaches that Gd loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives. It’s easy to agree when we like the plan. But what do you do when the plan isn’t what you expected?

We know that Gd doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we would like. What do we do when Gd doesn’t come through for us? How do we keep hope alive when life itself seems to take a wrong turn down a dead-end street? What if all that we hold dear is suddenly snatched away—if our friends desert us, if our job is gone, if our health disappears, if death comes unbidden to our door. These things do happen. What then?

We are led to face a difficult but undeniable reality that sometimes Gd’s plan is different from what we expected. So what then?

On Rosh Hashanah the featured character in our Torah readings is Abraham. Let’s take a look at his life and how he faced his disappointments. Abraham left his comfortable home in Mesopotamia—leaving behind wealth, prestige, family and community—to follow Gd’s call. What happened when he finally got to Canaan? There was no welcome sign, no discount coupons from the merchants, no housewarming party, no visit from the welcome wagon. Nobody expected him and nobody cared that he had come. Gd promised that the land would be his…but he had to scratch out an existence…living in tents!

Hundreds of years would pass before the promise was fulfilled. Abraham never saw it happen. Neither did Isaac his son, nor Jacob his grandson. Yes Gd has a plan for us and the world, but sometimes He works across the generations to accomplish His purposes. While we’re worried about which dress or suit to wear for Yom Tov, Gd acts globally—his timetable is not the same as ours.

Not only did Abraham not have a red carpet greeting him, just after he arrived, the land was stricken with a famine. What’s up with that? Here’s a man who has sacrificed everything to follow Gd. He comes to the land that Gd promised would be his…and now there’s a famine? How do you explain that? As it turns out, Abraham ends up going down to Egypt during the famine where he gets in trouble because he lies about Sarah to Pharaoh. It doesn’t make any sense. Why the famine and why the test?

The answer is, the test is the whole point. After all that Abraham has been through, after all he sacrificed for Gd--home, family, prestige, wealth—you would think that Gd would give him a period of peace and quiet. But life is rarely that simple for any of us. Life often sends trouble just when things are going well in order to teach us. But if we lose our job, our marriage, our friends, our reputation, our wealth, our home, our health…what then?

Instead of complaining at every trial and saying “Why me?” we would be better off to follow the advice of the Talmud (Brachot 5a) and ask: “Gd, what are you trying to teach me through this? What is the purpose of what’s happening to me?” Every difficult situation gives us the opportunity to become a student of Gd or a hapless victim.

Let’s learn from what happened to Armando Galarraga. In June he pitched, what was really a perfect game—a rarity in baseball. It had only happened 20 times in more than 100 years. But he didn’t get credit for it because on the last out of the bottom of the 9th inning, the umpire, Jim Joyce, botched the call of a routine ground out and called the runner safe at 1st base. The replay clearly showed that he was out by a step. Jim Leyland, the Tiger’s manager, stormed 1st base irate, but Joyce stood his ground.

Can we begin to imagine the profound sense of disappointment Galarraga felt? His life was baseball and he accomplished the greatest achievement in his position—something that only happens to very few—only to have it denied to him by someone else’s a mistake? Can you imagine?

But what followed was truly inspirational. It’s rare to find a person with the strength to admit they were wrong. An umpire is under no obligation to apologize for a missed call. But when Joyce saw his mistake on video, he literally cried as he realized that with his call he had destroyed a young man’s dream. He went to Galarraga with tears in his eyes and apologized. With ultimate grace, Galarraga comforted Joyce and said that those are the breaks of the game and hugged him.

The next day, Leyland, the manager, whose task it is to hand over the scorecard with the day’s lineup to the plate umpire, gave the task to Galarraga who came out and gave the lineup to Joyce. In a perfect orchestration of goodness, Joyce—who was supposed to have the day off—was at the plate to receive the scorecard from Galarraga and the crowd at the Stadium roared.

Because Joyce didn’t make excuses and took responsibility for his actions, players, fans and even some of the harshest critics in the world—like sports radio personalities—sang his praises. Joyce made a mistake, for sure, but his asking forgiveness, showing remorse, not making excuses…and the grace Galarraga demonstrated despite his profound disappointment…that’s the stuff of the supernatural—of a holy soul—and when we see it, there is something in us that recognizes it. The world was so inspired by what happened—and perhaps that was why it happened. Galarraga’s disappointment inspired the world as he discovered his holy soul!

Every difficult situation gives us the opportunity to become a student of Gd or a hapless victim. Each lesson is unique to the circumstances, but a crucial lesson underlying every disappointment is: When the famine comes—when disappointment sets in—remember that Gd will never abandon you! For example, if you get a rejection letter. It’s just a no. But maybe it’s “No, not now;” or “No, not this;” or “No, move in a different direction.” Gd didn’t abandon you with this rejection. Look for the hidden message in it. 

In today’s Torah reading, we read about the miraculous birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. It was about 25 years since arriving in Canaan, since Gd had 1st promised Abraham that his children would be as numerous as the “stars in the sky”—25 year of waiting and hoping and anticipating. Can you imagine the disappointment every month? So time and again Gd appeared to him to remind him of His promise. I’m sure he often wondered why Gd was taking so long. But he and Sarah never gave up, even though that as they were getting older and older, they were getting less and less likely to be able to have a child. 

For me the most important verse from this passage is in the beginning: “Gd remembered Sarah, as he had promised, and Gd did for Sarah as He had spoken.” Did you notice where Gd is in that verse? He’s at the beginning and He’s at the end. Gd is always at the beginning and at the end—and all the way through! Gd will never abandon us. He’ll see us though everything. That’s how it happened that Sarah got pregnant at 90 and why Abraham was changing diapers at the age of 100.

The story of Isaac’s birth teaches us that Gd is never early and He’s never late. He doesn’t work according to our timetable. What was the lesson in Abraham and Sarah’s 25-year agonizing wait? Perhaps it was to demonstrate the power of Gd and that He always keeps His promises. And when Abraham held little Isaac in his arms, he then knew that nothing was too hard for Gd. They named their child Yitzchak, “laughter.” It was both a statement of total joy and a reminder that Gd’s promises are no laughing matter.

We Jews have a long history of seeing Gd keeping His promises—even if it means intervening in the natural order of things. We saw it when Moses led us out of Egypt with the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea; when He brought us to the Promised Land and we conquered it despite enemies who were larger and stronger; when the Maccabees defeated the mighty Syrian Greeks; again and again in our time with the creation and defense of the State of Israel. Gd keeps His promises to the Jewish people!

Has God made a promise to you? If so, you may be sure that he will keep it. You may waver, but He won’t. It may not come in your time or in the way you imagined, but it will come. If your eyes fill with tears of disappointment remember the words of the Psalm 126—the Shir hamaalot psalm we sing before benching—“Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.”

The Psalm refers to the Jewish exiles to Babylonia after the destruction of the 1st Temple in 586 BCE. The Jews then could only see the pain of exile and their deep disappointment. Only over time would they understand that Gd had not abandoned them. In fact He blessed them in their exile and changed Jewish life forever for the better with the creation of the synagogue, the yeshiva and the Talmud. 

Another important lesson in this verse, “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy,” is, in order to fully experience the joy of life, there must—at some time—be tears. Philip Simmons, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease from early age, wrote in his book, Learning to Fall: “For how many of us has life turned out to be exactly what we had in mind?” in other words, who lives the life they always thought they would live? No one! Simmons recalls vacationing with his family in New Hampshire one summer and offering to remove some large stones from the dirt road leading to their cabin. His father told him to leave the stones in place. Without them, the dirt road would turn to mud when the rains came. “We need a hard road,” his father told him, “not a smooth one!” Sometimes we need a hard road. Without the tears there can be no real joy.

We can’t tell now all that will result from our current problems, and it is unlikely that we will fully understand 5, 10 or even 20 years from now. Gd can’t explain his purposes in advance because this information would only get in the way. Gd Has Reasons we can’t see. Did you ever look at the backside of a needlepoint? From the back it’s impossible to tell the beauty and orderliness of the front. That’s what life is like in this world. Only Gd knows both sides. 

A friend once told me that we are like ants crawling across a painting by Rembrandt. We crawl across the dark brown and think all of life is dark brown. Then we hit green and think, ‘”Oh, this is better. Now all is green.” But soon comes the dark blue and then a splash of yellow, a streak of red, and then another patch of brown.

We journey, from one color to another, never realizing that Gd is actually painting a masterpiece in our lives using all the colors of the palette. One day we will learn that every color had its place, had a reason, and that nothing was wasted or out of place. When the painting is finished, we discover that we were part of Gd’s masterpiece from the very beginning. Time is the canvas on which Gd does his painting.

Where does all this leave us? The answer is, we’re all still hurting—no one is immune. When we hurt, we have 2 choices: We can hurt with Gd, or we can hurt without Gd. What does it mean to hurt with Gd? This brings me to the false belief behind every disappointment. When we become disappointed, we do so because we cannot see that behind every misfortune, behind every heartbreak, behind every dark experience in our lives is Gd. Negativity only has the power that we give it. Know that Gd cries with us in our pain as a mother cries with her child. And just as a child learns from its pain how to better live in this world, so must we. I know this may sound crazy and hard to do, but embrace your disappointments. Look for what your divine parent is trying to teach you.

The prophet Jeremiah (29:11) tells us: “For I know the plans (thoughts) that I am planning for you, says Gd, plans of peace and not evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

But if you accept that what Gd plans for you is only for your good, what do you do when you don’t like the circumstances of your life and it seems as if those circumstances aren’t going to change anytime soon? You may be in a bad place in part because of your own foolish choices and now you feel guilty. But Gd is saying to you, “Stop kicking yourself! You are where you are because I put you there.” That’s huge!

Even if your problems are caused by others through betrayal, incompetence, or breach of trust, Gd somehow knows that you need to experience these disappointments and then life has brought them to you. And so let me say it again: You are where you are because Gd put you there! In time of trouble, if you understand this truth, it can save you from despair and disappointment. Gd always loves you no matter what. He will never leave you. Even if you can’t see it, He has a plan and a purpose for you.

And one more thing: Gd has your back! One of the 1st anti-Semites in history was Balak. Balak saw that he couldn’t defeat the Jews militarily and so he decided to defeat them spiritually by hiring the heathen prophet Bilaam to curse them. It’s an elaborate story, the end of which is that Bilaam’s attempts at cursing the Jews were turned into blessings—especially the famous blessing, Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, “How good are your tents, ‘O Jacob.”

The amazing thing about this story for me is that the Jewish people had absolutely no idea that it was happening. The interaction between Balak and Bilam and the attempted curses that turn into blessings takes place on cliffs that oversee the Jewish camp. But the Jews below had no idea that, at that time, Gd was shielding them from harm, turning the curses into blessings. It’s a great example of how Gd has our backs!

In the 1st blessing of the Amida, Gd is described as a Mageyn, a shield. What is a shield? A shield is something that protects us from danger—whether it’s a tool of a warrior fending off swords or the bulletproof glass of the Pope-mobile. Gd in the Amida is identified as the Supreme Shield that protects us even when we don’t know it, even before a potential tragedy happens.

Were you or someone you know ever involved in a terrible accident and somehow, miraculously, just walked away, suffering little or no injury? That’s Gd manifesting as our Mageyn. Did you ever make a wrong turn or for no reason take a different path and couldn’t figure out why? That could be Gd as our Mageyn, protecting us from some misfortune that was awaiting us. Gd watches over us and protects us in a hundred different ways every day—in ways we never know.

For many of us this has been a hard year, filled with disappointments. There are often many obstacles life puts in our path. Sometimes it seems that every time we try to go forward something comes up to block us. It could be Gd protecting us, but it’s so hard to take.

We’ve worked so hard for 6 years to have success with our new shule building. Many of us have become discouraged. There have been times when some of us have just about given up. Last fall, based on assurances from our bank, the county, our architect, our builder, we embarked on a capital campaign to build a smaller building on our property. We were assured by the bank that they would give us a new loan if we would just raise a certain sum of money.

Well we miraculously did that in a terrible economy—thanks to all of your sacrifices. But in January when we met with the bank to negotiate that loan, they, along with many other financial institutions had tightened their requirements of lending—especially to non-profits. After a couple of months of negotiations going nowhere, we moved on to other financial institutions—some of whom have agreed to give us the money we need. We are currently trying to complete these negotiations and we will let you know the results when we have them.     

But we must show faith and not give up now when things are not going as planned. I believe that Gd will make it happen—in one way or another. The only thing that can block the dreams Gd puts in us, teaches Rebbe Nachman, is our negativity—when we quit believing that it’s going to happen. It may seem impossible—like Abraham and Sarah having a child in their old age—but Gd can make a way even when it looks like there is no way! [Repeat]

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we’re supposed to do teshuva. Teshuva is usually understood to mean, “repentance.” It consists of regretting our former sins and resolving not to repeat that behavior. But that part of teshuva is more for Yom Kippur. Teshuva literally means “return.” On Rosh Hashanah we need to return to our true selves. On Rosh Hashanah we need to return to our dreams. Rosh Hashanah holds out the hope that we can start over and begin again!

Rosh Hashanah is a time to express our aspirations. It’s a time to believe in ourselves again—something that is ironically far more challenging for many than believing in Gd. It’s a time to envision what our lives would be like if the desires or our hearts came to fruition. So this Rosh Hashanah, let’s envision anew our aspirations. The child you’re praying for, see her life turned around. The troubled relationship you’re experiencing, see it turned around. The business that’s slow, see it successful. The illness you or someone you love is suffering with, see it healed.

I want everyone to close their eyes for a moment. Take a couple of deep breathes, and with each breath feel more and more relaxed. [Pause] Let’s see into the future to next Rosh Hashanah. Imagine sitting in our new shule with all your loved ones bathed in Gd’s light, singing praises of thanksgiving to Gd for bringing us into our new shule. See what it looks like and how wonderful it feels to be there together...

Now see all your hopes and dreams for this New Year fulfilled. What does it look like? How does it feel? [Pause] Imagine yourself thanking Gd next year in our new shule for fulfilling your dreams this year. [Pause] Open your eyes.

My friends, Gd has not abandoned you. If you don’t lose faith in Gd and in yourself, if you will remember the truth that Gd loves you unconditionally and that He only has what’s good for you in mind…if you can accept this truth, Gd will help you in this New Year to see your dreams fulfilled. He will not let you fall. After all, He has your back! Amen!

Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

Rosh Hashanah 5771

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