Living Our Best Lives--A Rosh Hashanah Sermon
Those of you have attended Writers' Week at the Adelaide Festival may be familiar with the happy accidents that happen there: in an hour where neither of the two programs really grab you, you choose the least dull of the two and end up discovering a book and authors that change your life. I experienced just such a happy accident this last March. I was introduced to mother and daughter Cecile Barral and Oceane Campbell and their book The Silence Between Us: a mother and daughter's conversation through suicide and into life. The book begins with Cecile's joyous description of the birth of her daughter's child. She wrote, "My daughter has given birth to her own, tiny, perfect daughter. Life has won."
But make no mistake, this book is difficult and intense. It begins fifteen years earlier, when Oceane spent a number of weeks meticulously planning her suicide. The fact that she survived is close to miraculous. Many years later, Oceane and her mother Cecile learned that both had journaled extensively in the months that followed. Their combined journal entries make up the book.
Oceane survived her suicide attempt almost entirely because of her mother's herculean efforts to drag her daughter kicking and screaming back into life. Medication helped a bit, and so did psychotherapy. The medical establishment that we look to regularly to care us and those we love, contributed almost nothing. Oceane describes an experience of hospitalisation in which she was treated more like a criminal than a patient. She became convinced that such callous treatment, combined with the complete loss of autonomy, would be enough to push her even more to take her own life. She persuaded a sympathetic psychiatrist to discharge her to her mother's care, and then her healing truly began.
The hospital promised that the community mental health program would take over her care. Cecile described her first contact with the program:
'Community mental health calls. "Could I talk to Oceane?"
"Yes, sure." They ask how things are. Of course you say all is fine.
"Won't they come and see you?" I enquire.
"They did not say, they just said they'd call again tomorrow to see how things are."'
And so the box is ticked. The community mental health worker can positively declare that contact has been made with Oceane for that day, and that she is still alive. With any luck, she will be found alive the next day as well.
It's been 16 years since I migrated to Australia and celebrated my first Rosh Hashanah in Adelaide. My plane landed exactly one week before the eve of the Jewish new year, and I struggled mightily to come up with sermons that year. For the first and probably the last time, there were complaints that my sermons were too short! I knew almost nothing about Australia and so I had no idea what to speak about.
All these years later, I have way too many opinions about just about everything. I have opinions about Vegemite and sticky date pudding, about stop signs versus roundabouts. I most definitely have opinions on whether Australia should remain a monarchy or become a republic. Another topic I have very strong opinions about is box ticking. I actively dislike it. I dislike that Australians see box ticking as an adequate way to minimize risk and distance themselves from responsibility. So, for example, if an organisation has a risk management plan, it can breathe a sigh of relief that it has done what is necessary to look after those in its care. Of course, what's really needed is to make sure each and every day that people are kept safe. A risk management plan is meaningless if risks are not actually managed.
I think another reason why box ticking drives me crazy is that it seems to encourage people to do the absolute minimum in any given situation. Like the mental health worker who called Oceane, waited to hear her say that she was fine, promised another call the next day, and then hung up. Box ticked. I gave a sermon a few years back about how rarely someone asks us how we are and with the expectation that we will reply truthfully. It appeared that the mental health worker had little or no interest in Oceane's actual well-being. Otherwise, that call would have been considerably longer.
The rabbis devoted considerable energy to comparing Noah to Abraham. Noah is memorably described in the Torah as "a righteous man of his generation." The rabbis note that if he had been born in the generation of Abraham instead, he would not have been considered righteous. Why not? Didn't Noah build the ark and save the animals from extinction? Of course he did, but he never asked God to reconsider the decision to destroy the world. In fact, he never said anything at all. Instead, he dutifully constructed the ark to the dimensions requested by God, loaded on the animals and sailed away. He and his family survived. The rest of humanity perished.
Abraham is entirely different. As soon as he hears of God's intentions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he begins to argue with God, and he doesn't hold back: "Far be it from You to do such a thing--to rain death upon the righteous and the wicked, treating righteous and wicked alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of the whole earth do justice?!" And then when God agrees not to destroy the cities if fifty righteous people are found there, Abraham only argues louder, ultimately persuading God that the cities should be spared if there are even only ten righteous people to be found.
Mind you, Abraham does not know any of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah. He lives a nomadic lifestyle and steers clear of cities. He does not stand to gain in any way by intervening on behalf of these people. But he does so anyway, because he believes that he must. In doing so, he takes a considerable risk. He challenges God, and thankfully God does not burn him to ash even as Abraham hammers his point home over and over again.
The rabbis take a dim view of Noah, who basically ticks the box but does nothing more. I was fascinated to learn just a few weeks ago that Noah in the Qur'an is entirely different. Much of Noah's story in the Qur'an does not focus on the pairs of animals or the forty days and nights of rain. Instead, the Qur'an portrays years of efforts by Noah to persuade the people of the world to turn away from evil and become righteous. He fails, but at least he tries. Noah in the Torah comes across as depressingly passive with no apparent interest in the fate of the rest of humanity.
Around the world in recent years, we have seen the rise of a phenomenon called "quiet quitting." Quiet quitting is when employees do the minimum amount of work required to tick the box and collect a paycheck. They no longer have any emotional investment in their workplaces, their co-workers, or the work they are doing. Distancing ourselves emotionally may shield us from hurt, but it also means that we lose the ability to celebrate the joyful moments as fully. After nearly three years of a few ups and a lot of downs in our personal lives and in the world, it isn't surprising that we might be tempted to shield ourselves from further shocks. But we may not be aware of the impact this has on our ability to live life to the fullest.
Let's go back to our comparison of the lives of Noah and Abraham. Noah was already 600 years old when the flood came upon the earth. According to the Torah, he lived a further 350 years. As the book of Genesis notes, "And all the days of Noah came to 950 years; then he died." There is nothing to indicate the quality of those 950 years--happy or sad, embraced by community or solitary. Did Noah weep inconsolably when he realised that his family members were the only human beings to survive? Did he weep again when the ark finally came to rest on Mt Ararat after endless weeks bounced around on the waters? Did his heart rejoice at the wondrous sight of that first rainbow? At the birth of his children and grandchildren? None of that is recorded. He comes across to us readers as completely devoid of emotion positive or negative. Each of those 950 years might have seen him inscribed once again in the Book of Life, but what kind of life? What existence was possible for one who chose not to speak up against God's intention to destroy all of humanity?
By contrast, we have lots and lots that we know about the character of Abraham. In today's Torah portion, we see his passionate heart for justice, even for those he doesn't know. A year later, Abraham becomes the father of a son at the absurd age of 100 years. Appropriately, he names the baby Yitzchak, meaning laughter. Sarah laughs at the hilarity of nursing a baby at the age of 90, and her husband laughs alongside her. He rejoices in this new life at the same time that he wonders in the miraculous nature of Yitzchak's existence.
Life still has much to throw at Abraham. Sarah, with God's backing, asks him to banish his elder son Ishmael and his mother Hagar. And then, in the Torah portion traditionally read out on this day, Abraham is confronted with the possibility of having to sacrifice his miraculous son Yitzchak at God's command. His is a life writ large--the high moments are extraordinary, and the lows are terrifying. By contrast to Noah, Abraham lives a mere 175 years. But the Torah notes, "And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin." As he breathes his last, Abraham is able to see that he has lived a full, rich, blessed life.
Our Rosh Hashanah tradition reminds us that there are two books: the Book of Life, and the Book of Death. But what if there is a third book: the Book of Box Ticking? This is the book for those who are not truly living, but merely existing. They are perhaps protected from the emotions of grief and loss that haunt us. But in exchange, they have given up the ability to revel in the everyday happiness of life and those rare, precious moments of joy. To walk blindly through life, missing out on all of its wonders--I can't think of a sadder fate.
So, today, I exhort you to write yourself into the book of life. Embrace it all--the good and the bad, and light and the dark. And give as much to this life as you take. Meet your neighbours and reconnect with your friends. Get involved in causes that speak to you and fight passionately for a better world. Cook and eat healthy food, but make sure it's delicious too. And, if you cherish this special Beit Shalom community, think about what gifts you have that you can share with us. Our synagogue will celebrate its sixtieth anniversary next year, and there will be lots and lots of opportunities to volunteer. If we all embrace life with both hands, hopefully each of us will come to the end of our days fully contented. May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of sweetness and joy, health and connection, prosperity and peace. Amen.