- Rabbi Yechiel Morris
- Duration: 30 min
Rosh Hashanah Drasha 5781 Rabbi Yechiel Morris
“The Year of a Global Pandemic and the Opportunity for Personal Transformation”
It had been only a few hours since Confederate General Robert E. Lee had signed the official documents surrendering his Confederate army of Northern Virginia to commanding General of the United States of America, Ulysses S. Grant.
Before leaving the home of Wilmer McLean, where the agreement at Appomattox Court House had been finalized, General Grant was reunited with his old friend from West Point and fellow US-Mexican War veteran, James Longstreet, chief commander of Lee’s army.
They hadn’t seen one another in nearly ten years. The last time they had met, Grant was forlorn, downcast and dispirited. Struggling to just make ends meet after failing in one business venture after another, he looked and appeared defeated and deflated. Running into one another on the streets of St. Louis, Grant insisted, however, that Longstreet take a five-dollar gold piece as repayment of a loan that had been outstanding for nearly fifteen years. Longstreet refused the payment, but Grant persisted. Eventually, to allow him to save face, Longstreet reluctantly accepted the money. Although they both rose to the highest echelons of their respective armies, they would not formally meet again until that fateful day on April 9, 1865 when Lee reluctantly surrendered to Grant.
As recorded in Ron Chernow’s 2017 biography of Grant, their reuniting was a cause for bittersweet celebration for the former friends and current rivals. “As soon as Grant saw his old pal, he sprang to his feet, shook his hand, offered him a cigar, and invited him to play brag, the card game they had enjoyed before the war.”
As Longstreet later told a reporter, he was bowled over by Grant’s generous spirit. “Great God, thought I to myself, how my heart swells out to such a magnanimous touch of humanity!”
Then, in the background of a most horrific, barbaric and devastating war that took 750,000 lives, more than the combined total US losses in all other wars between the Revolutionary War and the Vietnam War, Longstreet added a most reflective observation when he said, “Why do men fight, who were born to be brothers?”
What is remarkable about Longstreet is not only that observation about peace and brotherhood, but also what he pursued and promoted following the Civil War. In due time he joined Grant’s Republican party, supported Reconstruction, was nominated by Grant to be the Surveyor of Customs for the Port of New Orleans, and in spite of his former Confederate sympathies, he went so far as to command African Americans who now served in the New Orleans Metropolitan Police Force. Accusing him of betrayal, some southerners vilified him and labeled him a “scalawag.” Longstreet, however, did not waver and upon hearing the news in 1885 of Grant’s death, he remarked about his wartime nemesis, lifelong friend and eventual advocate and mentor, “he was the truest as well as the bravest man that ever lived.”
Longstreet’s story, his relationship with Grant, and his metamorphosis from a Confederate general to an advocate for civil rights and voting rights for freed slaves, is not only a lesson in Teshuva, in repentance, but also an example on how best to use our encounters and experiences in life for growth, reflection, modification, and transformation.
Perhaps for this reason, while the vast majority of statues honoring Confederate Generals have been torn down this past year, Longstreet’s monuments still stand in his hometown of Gainesville, Georgia as well as in Gettysburg National Memorial Park.
During a year when cancel-culture has become the norm, Longstreet’s fascinating story and life lesson of transformation remains mounted firmly on a pedestal for us to reflect upon and emulate.
In many ways, similar to the Civil War, this past year is one that we would just as soon forget and discard.
But that would be a grave mistake.
Yes, it is true that the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our lives.
Since Purim, what hasn’t been upended?
So much was disrupted.
Just about everything, similar to the confederate statues, was canceled and shattered.
Pesach plans, Simchas, vacations, work and the school year.
What’s more, we have been constantly living in fear.
Continuous worry from contracting the dreaded disease.
Not knowing when we can next see, welcome, and embrace loved ones.
Having simple excursions such as grocery shopping, dining out, and arranging playdates are so fraught with uncertainty and potential danger.
For many, if they didn’t lose their job, then there was and has been the constant fear that they would be furloughed, terminated, or that their next paycheck would be indefinitely delayed.
And so, under such difficult, dire, and distressing circumstances, why would we want to remember such a year?
Doesn’t it seem that where we are now is simply wasted time?
On the surface we appear to be in a time-out, and all we desperately want is for normal and regular play to resume.
Or, perhaps not.
Maybe we are right where we need to be?
Perhaps the cameras are running, the game is in play, and we are encouraged and expected to rise to the occasion and respond with greatness and distinction.
Consider an observation Longstreet made during an interview in 1879, as well as an insight from the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading.
Asked if he regretted going to war Longstreet resoundingly said that he did.
“I did not believe and I do not believe that the war was justified on either side...it was a grievous error. ”
But then he surprisingly added, “still I did not and do not regret my service. I fought for my people.”
One can easily question his justification. If he felt the war was wrong, shouldn't he have refused to fight?
It is easy to second guess his decision, but we must also be careful not to judge and view history through the prism of today’s values.
What we can, however, appreciate is his willingness to make the most of a horrific predicament and to rise to the occasion at a most perilous moment on behalf of those whom he loved and cared deeply for. What’s more, his willingness to change course following the war and to recognize the shifted values that the country was slowly embracing, demonstrated his capacity to learn and to transform from his experiences.
It was Grant, as well, who was always haunted by the horrors of the war, but nonetheless observed in his memoirs that, “we are better off now than we would have been without it and have made more rapid progress than we otherwise should have made.” He concluded, however, with an important caveat, that the war had been “a fearful lesson, and should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future.”
Clearly, Grant and Longstreet had two very different takes on the war and why it was necessary to engage and participate in it. Yet, both were able to rise to the occasion to make their contributions. Most critically, they both had the wisdom and courage to learn its lessons to help the country heal and to forge ahead in a new, better, and more just direction.
This is one of the critical messages of the two Torah readings that we read on Rosh Hashanah.
The story of Hagar and Yishmael, as well as Avraham’s journey with his son Yitzchak toward the Akeida, both powerfully remind us that there are no detours in life.
We are where we find ourselves because Hashem wants us, and indeed, needs us to be in each given situation that presents itself in all stages of our lives.
Every moment is critical and is an opportunity for growth, learning, action, and transformation.
In a recent presentation, Rabbi Menachem Penner, Dean of Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, noted that the two stories that we read about on Rosh Hashanah are remarkably similar.
Both stories involve a journey into the wilderness with a parent and a child.
In the Torah reading of the first day, Hagar takes her son Yishmael into the desert as they make their way back to Egypt after having been banished from the household of Avraham and Sarah.
In the reading of the second day, Avraham travels with his son Yitzchak as they approach Mount Moriah for the impending Akeida, the sacrifice of Yitzchak.
In both stories, as well, there is a crisis leading to the near death of a child.
Similarly, both incidents describe a Divine Angelic Revelation that provides a last-second reprieve.
At the same time, both stories are radically different.
In the story of the Akeida, Avraham feels and recognizes that he is in the spotlight.
Avraham understands that he is on a Divine mission.
“Vayashkem Avraham BaBoker...Vayakam Vayeilech el HaMakom asher amar lo Elokim”
Avraham “rises early in the morning...he stood up and journeyed to the place of which G-d had spoken to him.”
Hagar, in contrast, however, thinks she has become a footnote in history.
After her banishment she incorrectly assumed that the camera of history remained focused solely on the tent of Avraham and Sarah. She incorrectly imagined that she was now discredited, discarded, and disowned.
She felt that what she did no longer mattered. Her life would no longer have importance and value. Her connection with the Divine was now severed.
She, however, was gravely mistaken.
“VaYikra Malach Elokim el Hagar Min Hashamayim.” In her moment of despair and imagined rejection, “an angel of G-d called out to her from Heaven.”
Not only was she not alone. Not only had she not been rejected. Not only was she mistaken to think she was now irrelevant, but it was at that moment, specifically, that she had her greatest Revelation and encounter.
For all history, she would be the focus of the Biblical narrative.
The camera would eternally capture her most difficult journey and record it for all future generations to observe, study, and consider.
Hagar’s most challenging moment as well as Avraham’s most excruciating test and journey, would serve as reminders that wherever we are in life is where G-d is looking and watching.
We may think we are on a detour. We may think we are off track. We may think we are no longer relevant.
In reality, however, we are exactly where Hashem wants and needs us to be.
We are in the thick of the action. We are on the battlefield. We are the Generals and the great movers of history.
Yes. It is true. The situation around us is not in our hands. This past year's and current Pandemic has been imposed upon us, where we had little and no control to stop its emergence and frightful spread.
But just because it’s not in our hands doesn’t mean that it has been random.
Just the opposite!
It has been in G-d’s Hands. It all comes from HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
We may not be in the place we hoped to be.
Our options and our opportunities are limited and restricted.
Future plans, sources of income, and schooling options for our children continue to be in doubt and are unknown.
But no matter what happens and what will be, we are not alone.
Hashem’s attention span is not limited.
Whether we are Davening alone at home or in Shul behind a mask, socially distant from our friends and fellow congregants, Hashem is still as present as He ever was.
We may think we are on a detour or off course, but in truth, we are where Hashem wants us to be at this moment in our lives and in this moment of history.
We will only, however, move to the next station and to the next stage in life, if we successfully navigate, incorporate and elevate the present.
We can’t know why Hashem has allowed this Pandemic to so drastically shatter our usual sense of calm, confidence, and control. At the same time, we are challenged to use it as a necessary and critical opportunity for connectivity, consideration, and change.
Reflecting back on this past year, we must evaluate what we have learned and what we have gained. Most importantly, what can we take with us from the experience to better both ourselves and those around us? What experiences and opportunities did the past year present that can and must be used to transform and elevate our lives?
Rather than just having made it through and survived this past year, how did 2020/5780 get through to us?
What did it teach us? What did we learn about ourselves? What messages did G-d convey to us? Why was it so necessary and critical that we experienced the Pandemic this past year?
Did we discover something different and unique about Tefilla, and about our relationship with Hashem, when we had no choice but to daven in solitude at home for days, weeks and months on end? Did we take the time to slowly Daven and consider and internalize the Prayers words, themes and messages? Did we allow the prayers to penetrate our hearts and to touch our souls?
Had we ever realized the strength and necessity of community since we all had to rely on one another for assistance, strength and support? How will we now continue to play a critical role in being part of our community and in reaching out and helping one another?
Did we painfully learn what it really feels like to be alone and secluded? Will that most unpleasant, lonely and isolating experience empower and challenge us to reach out and to uplift, Pandemic or no Pandemic, those among us who are always alone and/or who are living on the fringes within the community? Will we be more sensitive to their plight and their struggles? Will we reach out and pull them in? Will we take the time to offer them comfort, support and friendship?
As we continue to painfully miss the ability to embrace and spend time with our parents, our grown children and our grandchildren, how will that translate to our sensitivity towards those who never have had or who no longer have that opportunity? Will we better understand their pain? Will we find ways to connect to them and offer them love, sympathy, and support?
Will we rethink how we celebrate and mark Simchas? Will we now recognize that it’s not how elaborate or showy the party is but rather it is what is being celebrated that is most important? That we can make it meaningful, memorable and momentous without breaking the bank, or outdoing someone else? That perhaps smaller, more intimate and slightly more creative Simchas can and will make for a most unforgettable, special and holy celebration.
Have we now taken advantage of the multitude of technological platforms to study our Torah and to reflect upon our Jewish values, ethics and teachings? Do we now recognize how truly accessible Torah study has become? That it is available to us with just a few clicks or downloads.
As a result of not being able to get together with friends and being unable to host guests, did we pay more attention to our children? At the Shabbos table did we better engage with our children? Instead of conversing with friends, did we ask our children Parsha questions, sing Zemiros with them and listen to them share their thoughts, feelings, questions, concerns and dreams? Moving forward, what can we now do to maintain and safeguard that experience?
Since we ourselves had to spend most of the day at home, did our children see and observe us Davening in our homes, morning, afternoon and night? Did they see us studying Torah with a Sefer or studying Torah using our phone and computer? Did they overhear us on the phone learning with a Chavrusa, a study partner? In addition, did we study Torah with our children? Did we read them stories with Jewish content? Did we play Jewish songs in our home? By observing us, what did they witness and what values did they absorb?
Specifically due to the Pandemic, and what its unique circumstances have presented, what other messages and lessons have we learned as individuals, as a community and as members of our larger society?
None of us ever wanted this Pandemic. Its impact has been devastating economically, educationally, socially and, most certainly in terms of health and lives lost.
It has just been horrific.
We cannot and must not try to point fingers and offer suggestions why G-d has brought it upon the world at this time in history.
But it has been presented to us.
And what we should understand is that wherever we are and however we find ourselves is where we are supposed to be.
This isn’t time off from our journey and from our mission.
The Heavenly Camera is very much on. It’s live. And it is recording and following our every move.
We are in the game, and we are on the field of battle.
This is our time, our mission and this is our moment to shine, grow, learn, improve and transform.
For all we know, similar to Ulysses Grant emerging from his unsuccessful and failed career as a businessman to assume the role of a Union Civil War officer, this, right now, could be the most important moment and time in our entire lives.
It’s not what we wanted. It’s not what we expected. But it is what has been afforded and directed to us. It has perhaps stopped and so profoundly altered our lives in order for us to learn its lessons and head in a new and more productive and sanctified direction.
Just as the Camera was following Hagar, it has been following us, as well, on this most difficult journey.
We may indeed feel like Hagar after her banishment, but we must not repeat her mistake when she falsely assumed she was abandoned.
Rather, we are called upon to rise to the occasion and to respond as Avraham at the moment of the Akeida.
His journey, too, was fraught with pain, sadness, difficulty, and despondency, but his strength, resolve and courage literally elevated and forever sacredly transformed his legacy and the course of history.
How we respond to Corona and what we glean, infuse and incorporate from this period and this battle could be our moment of Vayikra Elokim Min Hashamayim. It could very well be that Hashem is calling out and challenging us to rise to the occasion, to learn from the experience, and to be forever uplifted, transformed and rebranded.
After all, Rav Kook notes that G-d, when providing the instructions for the Akeida, called out, “Avraham, Avraham.”
According to Rav Kook, the double expression was a challenge for Avraham to live up to and rise to the occasion to indeed become Avraham.
Perhaps we are now having our Avraham Avraham moment. Hashem, through COVID, is challenging us to live and respond according to our potential. We are being prodded to find the hidden qualities and strengths and values that lie within us. We must now bring them out into the open to change and better ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our community, our people, and indeed the entire world.
We can heed the call given to Avraham. We can avoid the colossal mistake of Hagar. We, similar to James Longstreet following the Civil War, can transform, use our talents, and see the world and our mission in a new light. Following the example of General and President Ulysses S. Grant, we can confront a most destructive and devastating circumstance, and rise to the occasion to learn its lessons, and discover our talents for repair, reconstruction and restoration.
Perhaps this is the time to find out who we really are and what we are made of.
To cancel out the constant attempt of trying to fit in. To cancel out what has become habitual and normative and instead reimagine who I am and what I can and must achieve? What are my strengths and talents? What have I learned from this experience to better myself, strengthen my relationship with G-d, and reconnect with those around me.
This Rosh Hashanah the Shofar will be silent on the first day of Rosh Hashanah since it coincides with Shabbos.
How very symbolic!
On that first day, Rosh Hashanah will look, feel and sound different.
Much like this past year.
Our Rabbis glean from the Torah that it will be a day of Zichron Teruah. It is a day when we are beckoned to pay even closer attention to the clarion call and the silent sound of the Shofar.
The Shofar will not be physically sounded, but we will be challenged to listen carefully and tune in to its powerful messages.
Its silence will force us to pay even closer attention to its stirring sounds. Its absence will challenge us to use alternative and additional methods to express our thoughts and wishes, and to arouse us to even greater heights of devotion and faithfulness.
If we use the day wisely and to our advantage, then when the rousing sound of the Shofar will be blasted on Sunday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we will not only hear its sounds, but we will do so with a new appreciation, understanding, mission, and charge.
We will have learned the lesson of this past year.
We will have risen to the challenge.
We will have taken advantage of what was presented.
We will have been elevated.
We will have been transformed.
Adina joins me in wishing each and everyone of you, members of our entire Young Israel of Southfield family, a new year of sweetness, joy, good health, success, strength, clarity, blessings, peace, and constructive, positive and sacred transformation, Lanu, for us, U’L’chol Yisrael and for all of Israel.