To Isabel, As You Join Our People

This is a guest post by Rabbi Michael Adam Latz of Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis. This drash was given to congregant Isabel at her simchat bat on Shabbat Nachamu 5771 (August 12th, 2011).

Dear Isabel:
Tonight, surrounded by the love of your parents, extended family, and Shir Tikvah community, you’ve been given your name and blessed as we celebrate and welcome you into the covenant of the Jewish people. As you sleep tenderly and sweetly, our congregation’s prayers embracing you like a dream, you are blissfully unaware of the chaos and turmoil beyond the reach of your next meal and the tender arms of your parents who adore you. Thank God. There is something so cosmically reassuring to behold the grasp of a newborn: the promise of life, a future whose horizon gazes beyond our every dream, the possibility of the world reborn with every stirring sound you make, eternity dazzling our spirits as you open your eyes and awaken to the world before you.
Isabel, you were born at a moment of history so full, so chaotic, so desperate, people and wildflowers and creatures compete for oxygen, land, and airtime through throngs of agony and despair. There is a wonderful song, Isabel—Oh baby, it’s a wild world! And that it most certainly is.
The world economy is as volatile and vulnerable as ducklings trying to cross the autobahn: desperately unemployed people are rioting in the streets; Israelis in the hundreds of thousands protest to demand care for the poor and equity in housing; Syrians are marching against a repressive and morally bankrupt regime that slaughters those who dare speak truth to power; Somali children are starving to death before our very eyes; the United States’ credit rating has been down graded for the first time, by a financial rating agency so bankrupt of integrity it would be laughable were it not so threatening to world economic security. The Republican party—once the party of Abraham Lincoln—has been taken over by ideological zealots who have corrupted the deeply American value of compromise and turned it into a four letter word; and we are left, looking to Jon Stewart for news and Michele Bachman for laughter.
In some ways, Isabel, you were born into a painful, scary, wrenching moment of history. It is a veritable doomsdayer’s delight, with end-of-the world preachers peddling and profiteering off a planet of anxieties and fear. You will hear, likely so many times it will be meaningless, that the quality of your life will be less than your parents.
Yes, these are tough times. But Isabel, you were born into a people who have survived tyrants throughout thousands of years! Resilience courses through your DNA, hope is not merely an emotional state of being, but a deeply affirming theological practice. Resistance against tyranny is our legacy. Speaking truth to power is the first thing we as a Jewish community teach you, when you rise up as a little child and we will ask you chant the Four Questions during the Passover Seder each year, demanding of the adults around you to take the deepest longings of your heart and promptings of your conscience seriously.
Isabel, there is incredible sadness in the world. There are aching hearts and wounded bodies, and people who are starving and without homes and work that pays a decent wage, and people who are sick who can’t get medicine to help them.
But Isabel, there is not a single problem in the world that we can’t do something about! Judaism is [a] 3,000 year collective statement that we will not live in fear, but that hope, faith, and action will guide us through life, from the depths of despair to the great mountain peaks of inspiration!
This very Shabbat is known in our tradition as Shabbat Nachamu—the Shabbat of Comfort. We read from the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, Comfort My People.”
Certainly, this was God speaking about the Jewish people who were suffering at the hands of despots in ancient times. But it was not comfort for the Jews alone.
We didn’t stop there. God seeks comfort for all humanity. And calls to each of us to provide that comfort, to create that world. Isabel, the problems are real—I don’t deny that. But when we open the pages of our sacred text and we soak in the stories of a people who have wandered and wondered and believed, we become the next links in a chain of tradition to live with sacred purpose, integrity, and the pursuit of human dignity. When I see how we rise up and care for one other, touch each other’s wounds, hold each other in our grief, and celebrate with each other in times of exquisite joy, I know that there is a purpose to life more grand, more expansive, more
possible than we could ever imagine.
Judaism teaches that with each new child, the world is reborn. Tonight, Isabel, amidst the furies of cynicism and imposing despair which can cloud our faith, we pour our every hope for the future onto you.
There is a story told that during the Holocaust, a group of Jewish men and women quietly gathered on Simchat Torah, the holiday when we dance and rejoice and celebrate Torah.
In the darkness of Auschwitz, there was little cause to celebrate.
We have no bread, one man cried.
Our families are gone, wailed one woman.
We are freezing, trembled another.
We have no Torah, bemoaned yet another.
In the quiet of the hour, in the gagging stench of decaying humanity, a frail elderly man with a back wrenched from a life of hard labor, stood and shuffled to the center of the circle. The Jews grew quiet.
With tears in his eyes, he held the hand of his small granddaughter; she was only a few years older than you Isabel, and she clasped tightly to her grandpa’s crooked fingers.
We have no Torah, he said quietly. But we have this treasure, he said, of his beautiful granddaughter. And he bent over, and picked her up, and cradled her like the Torah.
And the community joined together, lifting the young girl in their arms, chanting verses of Torah from memory, rejoicing in all that God had given them.
Isabel, sweet child, we can not prevent pain and suffering in our world. It seems this is the bargain for being human.
But we can make the suffering sufferable; we can always do good, and strive to make our world better, because as the wise sage Paul Wellstone taught, we all do better when we all do better. We can, together, reach across the aisles of our indifference and touch the hands and the hearts of people like us and so different all at once; and for one brief moment, we can create a world of love and wholeness and peace.
There’s a lot of work to do out there to realize God’s vision of justice and dignity. Let’s get started.

Rabbi Latz’s sermons can be found at Shir Tikvah’s website, by clicking here.

(Image: rumpleteaser)