Some years ago -- when my son-in-law, then in Rabbinical School, was graduating in Newport, Rhode Island from Officer Development School in the United States Navy as a newly minted Ensign -- I wrote a piece for this paper titled “The Sin of My Generation.” While watching him parade proudly with his fellow graduates in his dress whites, sharply saluting his commanding officer, I was overwhelmed by a sense that I had failed the sailors and soldiers who had served during the Vietnam years by denying them the right to take pride in their service.
The title of this piece is, of course, taken from the painful but magnificent song from Jonathan Larson’s RENT titled “Seasons of Love.” As two of the protagonists are slowly dying from AIDS, their friends struggle to assess the value of their lives, which they know will end far too early.
Over the years, I’ve had what must be tens of thousands of conversations with congregants, and strangers that I’ve met in the context of my work. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times those conversations began with the words “Rabbi, can I ask you a silly question?”
The good teacher — or should I say the wise teacher -— will tell you that there are no silly questions. There are silly answers, to be sure, but very few if any silly questions.
What follows below is a very slightly edited version of the sermon I delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in my own synagogue. It was as much a personal statement about my own quest to invest life with meaning as it was a conventional sermon, but upon reflection... if that isn't legitimate fodder for a sermon, I'm not sure what is.
I hope that you find it meaningful, and I wish you all a G'mar Hatima Tovah-
At this time of year, I am often greeted by friends and congregants with some version of “this is your busy season, isn’t it?” Accountants like to say that this is “The rabbi’s April.” The teller at my bank this morning, an Indian woman, said benignly, “you have some holidays coming up, don’t you?’
Some years ago, as I recuperated from serious orthopedic surgery on my ankle, I went to the surgeon’s office for a follow-up appointment. My recovery was in that awkward stage where I was no longer in a cast or on crutches, but clearly not foot loose and fancy free, either. I remember asking the doctor something along the lines of “how much is too much?” Should I be walking more or less if it hurts? Should I be pushing this recovery along, or would pushing it slow down my overall progress?
Tom Lehrer’s not around for me to ask him how he would feel about my playing with his lyrics. I wish he were. We could use his biting humor these days. But I think that, given where America and the world are at right now, if we were to change the last word of his refrain to “Israelis” instead of Jews, we’d have ourselves a reborn classic.
In the jargon of mental health professionals, when you say that someone’s “affect is labile,” it means that he/she tends to flip back and forth between different moods. It’s another way of saying that a person is behaving unpredictably, alternating between happy and sad, hope and despair, in ways that are hard to predict and liable to change at any moment.
Today’s world of incredibly fast travel and communication has created improbably jarring segues of time and space. But even given that fact, transitioning from being in Moscow and St. Petersburg one week to Orlando, Florida the next has been, to say the least, a strange adjustment.