Rosh Hashanah Eve 5771
My dear friends, at this particular time, on this date, we find ourselves in the midst of a sacred season, in truth it can be argued, 3 sacred seasons. We have recently observed the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, an indelible event in our hearts, minds and spirits. Most will agree that it is good to have K-5 behind us. Yet, personally and communally we are still healing. Of course tonight is Rosh Hashanah 5771, a new year, time for reflection on the past and preparation to approach the future. And I know the thought in the minds of many seated here, tomorrow night is the beginning of the 2010 Saints Football season.
As I do each year, I read a number of important books to prepare for this holy day season, to present the right messages. In some ways a Rabbi is like the Coach before the big game. So I read Sean Payton’s “Home Team.” I was fascinated to discover the numerous techniques he employed to motivate his team- movies, speakers and videos.
Some of you may recall that last year I resorted to my various tallesim to spark your thinking with a rabbinic fashion show. This year I was tempted to wear my black and gold jersey with #18, which simply reads: THE RABBI on the back. I wear it proudly on game days, but decided it was not quite appropriate Yuntif attire.
I needed something that would speak to the soul. So, my spiritual text for this year is not from Abraham Joshua Heschel or Reb Nachman, but is entitled “Coming back Stronger- Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity written by Rabbi Drew Brees with help from Chris Fabry. While Sean Payton’s work is essentially a football book, I found Drew Brees’ to be instructive and deeply spiritual. It includes aspects of theology with which I agree and some not, as he provides a retrospective on the last few years, not only of the Saints and Drew Brees, but of all New Orleans.
Some might think that referencing a football player’s book and the Saints’ Super Bowl victory seems mundane, even trite. I might agree generally, but truly believe that this past year’s Saints story was much more than about sports. The climactic moments- an overtime field goal in the NFC Championship and the interception at the end of the Super Bowl were transcendent spiritual experiences. They served as the metaphor for our community as we continue to heal from Katrina and confront our own personal issues.
The premise of “Coming Back Stronger” is that all of us face challenges. Drew Brees, not a tragic figure in any way, still had problems like all of us: a dysfunctional family with a mother whose mental illness and suicide haunted him; his talent being doubted throughout his career from high school, college and into the pros; debilitating injuries to the knee and a torn shoulder, either of which could have ended his career and losing what he thought was his dream job in San Diego. We may not be NFL quarterbacks, but we confront similar challenges- families that are less than ideal, sweet relationships that turn sour, physical illnesses and injuries that compromise our days and potentially limit our future, loss of jobs through no fault of our own or sometimes with fault; and storms of all varieties that come into our lives with which we must cope. Through a combination of his insights and Jewish wisdom we can gain perspective to deal with life’s challenges.
How do we theologically make sense when reversals come our way? I’m not sure that all will buy into his approach. I do not. Still, we all can appreciate that faith provides an anchor in a storm. In his words: “God, I know that if you bring me to it, you will bring me through it.
I know you have a plan, but quite honestly, I don’t see it right now. But I know it’s there. I know I have to believe. I know I need to have faith. I have to trust you. And I do trust you. But it’s hard right now.” (pp. xxi-xxii)
If that approach speaks to you, you are welcome to it. He embraces it as a good Christian, but there is nothing non-Jewish about it. Personally, I’m not a “It’s all God’s plan” kind of believer. Instead, I prefer the 23rd Psalm approach. As I walk through the valley of hurt, pain, loss and crisis, I seek a good companion and feel that God is with me. Or consistent with the 121st Psalm, I lift my eyes/my mind up to the mountain, believing that God will be there to help. I know that this theology has helped me as I absorb deaths in my family, crises in my life or major disappointments. Reflecting upon 5 years ago, my prayers were to help me take care of family and congregation with the faith that God would be there for me, not so much that it is God’s plan, but that adversity too is part of God’s world.
Theology is good for reflection, but we need a game plan to tackle life’s hurtles. Rabbi Brees provides a number of effective strategies, consistent with our Jewish traditions. As a child he was teased because of a prominent facial birthmark. He chose to see it as something that made him unique, not ugly. I am reminded of my nephew, who at the age of 5 lost all body hair, due to an auto immune disease. He has been totally bald since then, but never allowed it to impact his drive in life. He earned his BA and MBA, found a great job, met a wonderful woman on J-date, who easily saw past his lack of hair and just became a father. No matter our physical marks, perceived imperfections, which others use for ridicule, each of us is unique; each of us is created b’tselem Elohim in the image of God and no one can take that away from us.
When life takes unexpected twists: you don’t land the desired job; you’re rejected by the college of your dreams; you lose the election, are not chosen for the committee chair or the promotion you deserved- how can you react. Drew Brees confronted such disappointments. As a Texas High School All Star, he had dreams of playing at the University of Texas or perhaps Texas A & M. They were not interested and instead he travelled to Indiana to play for perennial loser Purdue. He expected to be a first round pick in the NFL draft earning big bonus dollars, but instead was chosen in the second. Later as a professional free agent, Brees thought the Miami Dolphins would become home, but instead was relegated to storm ravaged New Orleans.
How did he respond? “I could get stuck in disappointment because I hadn’t gone in the first round like I envisioned, or I could be thankful I’d landed in the right place. Sometimes it’s not how you get to your destination that’s most important. The key is ending up in the right place…” (p. 43) He made it so.
In 1977 when I was ordained, I assumed I’d be a rabbi in the northeast. Instead, I landed in Texas for seven years with wonderful colleagues and teachers. It became the right place. I accepted this pulpit in New Orleans in 1984, thinking I would remain a few years and then move elsewhere. Instead we have shared 27 years of a close, caring relationship. Gates of Prayer was and is the right place. I’m not going to say, “we plan and God laughs.” I will say that one never knows what will become the Promised Land.
In response to those in San Diego, who doubted his ability as a football player, Brees could have adopted an “I’ll show them, chip on your shoulder” attitude. Being “dissed,” not respected, motivates many, but it is negative. Brees assumed a more positive stance: “I made a choice: instead of spurred on by those who doubted me, I’d be motivated by those who had faith in me. These were the people who mentored me, supported me, and believed in me, everyone from my parents to my teachers, coaches, mentors, teammates, and now the City of New Orleans.” (p. 66)
Jewish tradition teaches that vengeance is not the right path for living. Getting even, showing others how wrong they were may bring temporary satisfaction, but not real fulfillment. Negative energy can be very draining, while positive energy is invigorating.
And when we stumble, make mistakes, disappoint others and embarrass ourselves, how shall we respond? Certainly we can dwell upon them if we like. More importantly we must learn from the fumbles and interceptions of life. These holy days focus on that theme of teshuvah, repentance, recognizing mistakes, correcting them, asking forgiveness of those who may have been adversely impacted by our deeds and committing not to repeat them again.
For Drew Brees and for so many of us, New Orleans became the ultimate challenge. Looking for a new football home he envisioned Miami. New Orleans was a consideration, but under the circumstances, a new coach, history of being losers, a city barely functioning, he was dubious at best. Then he and his wife Brittany came for a visit. They were wined and dined at Emeril’s. Keep in mind, though, this was January of 2006, when our world was still topsy turvy. Driving back with Coach Peyton from the North Shore, they inadvertently detoured through devastated Lakeview. Perhaps it was fate, as Drew and Brittany, like so many others who have chosen to settle here in recent years, felt a sense of being called. They arrived here recognizing that life is bigger than football, with a faith commitment to give back and help in the healing process. We call that Tikun Olam in our tradition.
Following his own personal shoulder rehabilitation, Brees understood that the September 2006 first game back in the Dome held great psychological significance. I was present and remember the evening distinctly. Tears filled my eyes as the team ran out onto the field. Their mere presence was a statement. An early blocked punt and Saints touchdown lifted us. Yes, it was just a game, but it served as a transcendent spiritual moment towards recovery and Brees appreciated its significance that night, as well as in the Miami Super Bowl victory, when he wrote:
“Whether you’re talking in terms of the physical, the emotional or the spiritual, healing has its own timetable. When there is a tragedy in your life- perhaps a health crisis or the death of a family member or something else that upends your world- there is a mourning period you have to go through in order to cope with it and come out on the other side healthy and mentally whole.” (p. 120) Jewish tradition has always understood this reality, which is why we have prescribed periods of mourning over time. We never fully cease mourning.
Healing requires time and can be very frustrating. How well we know. I have always opined that it will be at least 10 years before this community can say it is recovered. We are at the half-way point with a city government in which we have some faith, revival of Lakeview and other areas, public education improving, medical infrastructure being rebuilt and many other hopeful signs, cognizant that there is still much more to be done. As a congregation our numbers are not what they were, but our strength and vitality may be even greater than before. We have learned many lessons along the way, especially in our relationship with Beth Israel, which has become a model for the nation.
On this evening of Rosh Hashanah, we find ourselves in the midst of sacred seasons. Drew Brees’ mantra of last year- “Finish Strong”- seems to apply to our city, how we conduct our lives and to our beloved football team. He comments: “The story isn’t over for New Orleans. We’ve made a lot of progress, but it’s too soon to relax. It’s not like every part of the city has suddenly been rebuilt overnight… the story of our recovery is still being written.” (p. 299)
Rosh Hashanah and our entire High Holy Days are an opportunity for us to reflect and prepare for the year to come. We can learn from the past, knowing that we can cope with whatever is presented to us. Our story is still being written and we are doing the writing. And with tomorrow’s kick-off, comes the reminder that the game continues for us all. L’shanah Tovah Tikotevu.. May it be a good year, one of continued growth and recovery, appreciating the spiritual sources that enable us to succeed.