The Open Door: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah

All the best for a sweet, happy and healthy New Year. May it be a year of renewal and hope for us and for all who dwell on earth…

For my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon, click here:

We’ve decided to dedicate this JRC year to the theme, “Coming Home.” We’re not out of the wilderness just yet – we’ve got a bit longer – but before too long, our congregational community will be celebrating a very, memorable homecoming together. I know without any doubt, and I’m sure you do too, that this will be an unforgettable and life-changing year for JRC. And so I think it’s altogether appropriate that we spend some time exploring the spiritual meaning of homecoming during the holidays and over the course of the coming year.

I’d like to start tonight by sharing one particularly powerful homecoming story with you. It comes from the book “The Lemon Tree,” by Sandy Tolan, a book I know many of you have already read. I have recommended many books over the course of the years to JRC members, but I must tell you I can scarcely recall a book recommendation that has inspired as many passionate responses as this particular book.

“The Lemon Tree” tells two real-life parallel narratives – of a Palestinian man named Bashir Khairi and an Israeli woman named Dalia Eshkanazi. Bashir spent his early childhood in the house his father built in the town of al-Ramle in British Mandate Palestine. Dalia was born to Jewish Bulgarian parents during World War II. During the 1948 war, an event Israelis refer to as the Milchemet Ha’atzmaut (the War of Independence) and Palestinians call al-Nakhba (the Catastrophe) Bashir’s family was expelled from their home when he was a young boy. At roughly the same time, when she was just a small baby, Dalia’s family escaped from Bulgaria, emigrated to Israel, and settled in Ramle – as it happened, in the Khairi family’s house.

While Bashir grew up in a refugee camp in the West Bank, Dalia grew up in her new home in the newly established Jewish State. Dalia would later admit she often wondered about who had lived in this house before her. She had been told that it was an Arab house, and she had learned in school that during the War of Independence, many Arabs had left and abandoned their homes. Beyond, that she knew that it was simply her home – the only home she ever really knew.

For his part, Bashir, like many Palestinian refugees, was raised with stories about their family’s beloved home in al-Ramle – how it was built, how the rooms were laid out, and especially about the lemon tree his father had planted in the backyard. More than anything, Bashir, like all Palestinians, dreamed of the day – hopefully soon – that he would finally return home

After the Six Day War in 1967, with Israel’s acquisition of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians were able for the first time to travel inside the Green Line and enter Israel. Many took this as an opportunity to visit their original family homes – or in some cases, what was left of them. Bashir, now a young man, boarded a bus with two of his cousins and took a journey to al-Ramle to finally see the houses they barely remembered as children. One of them had been converted into a school, and another was now owned by a Jewish family that greeted them less than hospitably.

As they walked up the walk to Bashir’s home, Dalia, who was now just out of High School, was sitting in the kitchen. The three men rang the bell, and she answered the door. She would say later that as soon as she saw them, she knew immediately who they were and why they had come. Sure enough, Bashir said to her, “this was my father’s house. And I lived here too.” Dalia knew in her heart what was coming next: “Would it be possible for us to come in and see the house?”

Dalia would say later that this was a life-changing moment of truth for her. She knew logically that the safe and sensible thing to do would be to tell them to come back in a few hours, when her parents would be home. But of course she knew if she said that, they would almost surely leave and never come back. In the end, she really did have only two choices: she could refuse them, or she could invite them in. There was no in-between, and she had to make her decision right there, on the spot. With so many thoughts, and fears and curiosities rushing through her head, in literally a split-second, Dahlia made her decision – she opened the door and let Bashir in.

And that’s only the first chapter. For what happened next, you’ll have to read the rest yourself, if you haven’t already. Suffice to say, Dahlia’s opening of the door to Bashir opened the door to a remarkable personal relationship that is now entering its fifth decade. But don’t get me wrong: this is not a simplistic or polyannish story with a pat, happy ending. It is an intensely complex, difficult and often painful story.

As close as Dahlia and Bashir become on a personal level, it is eminently clear that they have important and basic differences on a macro – political level. In a very deep and profound way, this house represents home to them both, though its place in their respective narratives is radically different for each of them. For Dahlia and Bashir, and for their respective peoples, the true homecoming has yet to truly occur.

When I first finished “The Lemon Tree,” I personally found it to be a very hopeful book, and I wrote as much when I recommended it in a JRC newsletter some time back. I believed – and continue to believe, to put it very simply, that where there’s humanity, there’s hope. But interestingly enough, most JRC members who read the book reported to me that they found it upsetting and even hopeless. Several felt that the ideological gulf between Bashir and Dahlia was so vast, so inherently at odds, that there seemed to be little real hope for a true and lasting peace between these two peoples. Even if these two individuals were able to find a place to connect, the political issues at hand are just so tragically intractable, so irresolvable – particularly the Palestinian long held hope for a right of return, which for Israel, obviously, would mean the end of the nation as a Jewish state.

Last month, our JRC Israel trip included a stop at the house in Ramle. Dahlia and Bashir have since transformed their old home into what is now called “The Open House.” It now serves as a day care center for local Ramle Arab youth and a center for coexistence programs for Jewish and Arab High School children in the region. Many of the participants on our trip had already read “The Lemon Tree,” so this visit in many ways felt like a sacred pilgrimage. It was extremely powerful for us to go into the rooms we had read so much about, the new lemon tree in the backyard. We ended up spending a great deal of time with Dahlia, who, in her characteristically open-hearted fashion, shared her story with us and spoke with us for well over an hour.

I shared with Dahlia the reactions I had heard about the book, and asked her if she felt it was a hopeless story. And if not, where did she find hope, given that the prospects for a political settlement seem so bleak at the moment? Dahlia answered that she did indeed consider herself to be a hopeful person. But, she said, she did not let herself depend upon external circumstances for hope. If she looked exclusively outside events for this purpose, she would succumb to despair. Real hope, she told us, has to come from within. The Open House that she and Bashir created together represents just that: one expression of hope in an often hopeless-seeming world.

I understand Dahlia’s answer to mean this: that regardless of which way the wind may be blowing outside our door, each and every one of us must take personal responsibility for creating hope in our lives and our world. And the most direct way to hope is through the resolve to act. To stare down that which feels intractable and identify the actions we can take that will make a difference.

I have often commented about how vulnerable, how powerless we 21st century westerners often claim to feel – and how this claim seems to fly in the face of everything we know our lives and our world. It’s just so fascinating to me that we Americans live in the most powerful country in the world, and yet we feel so disempowered in so many ways. There are obviously many complex reasons for this – for my part I believe it has largely to do with a pervasive culture of fear – but without over analyzing this phenomenon, I do believe a palpable sense of helplessness has taken hold of our lives. The problems of the outside world blare at us full strength from every available media outlet, and it often feels as though there is little we can really to make things better.

Even more troubling to me is the way our sense of disempowerment too often leads to cynicism – and eventually to the dismissal of those who are endeavoring to make a difference. Some examples: many of you know, for example, that I am a big supporter of Jewish-Palestinian coexistence projects like The Open House. Locally here in Chicago, for instance, I am involved with an important initiative called “Hands of Peace” that brings together Jewish, Muslim and Christian High School students from the Middle East and the US for coexistence dialogue and conflict resolution. Over the years, I have tried to raise awareness about similar kinds of projects both here and around the world.

Just recently, I read an article in The Economist that profiled the proliferation of coexistence projects and reported on a growing questioning of their effectiveness. The reporter asked it this way: “If so many people are intent on making peace, why hasn’t it happened by now? Or more fairly: do such ‘co-existence’ projects actually change anything for the good?” I’ve heard others voice similar kinds of sentiments: where are the results? How can we actually quantify them? And underlying these questions is a larger nagging assumption: that these efforts are all well and good, but until there is a true political solution to this conflict, they really won’t make a whit of difference.

Not long ago, I heard similar thoughts expressed on NPR about the growth of Green initiatives – a movement that we at JRC have committed to in a significant way as we build our new synagogue facility. This particular commentator scoffed at these sorts of efforts, saying that breakdown of the environment is largely caused by the collusion of powerful economic, political and corporate interests – and that all the bike riding and hybrid driving and paper recycling might serve to make us feel better, but it really doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in the long run.

I will confess I that there are times when I fall victim to this cynicism as well. Like everyone, I’ve often been overwhelmed by the knowledge that the systemic roots of these problems are just so enormous, so pervasive in our world. Still, I cannot surrender the conviction that individual actions do indeed make a difference in our world, and that such actions such as these are occurring around the world, every day, every moment, every second, in ways we often cannot quantify or understand. I simply cannot shake the image of Dahila as a young woman standing at the threshold of her house, deciding in that one split-second to open the door to Bashir – and how that decision changed not only their lives, but the lives of many others who they could not possibly know.

In its way, I think this image of the open door might be a powerful spiritual metaphor for own disempowered age. That regardless of the rise and fall of the events of the world outside – and if history is any guide, they will continue to rise and fall – we can still choose to open the door to the possibility of connection, of healing, of peace in our world.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no illusions about the systemic causes of injustice and corruption in our world. You may recall this has been the subject of many sermons of mine over the years. And I am not for a moment suggesting that we surrender the fight for fundamental change in so many areas of our world that desperately need it. But at the same time, I believe we must understand that fundamental change is a commitment to the long haul. It’s frustrating and often thankless work – and by its very nature it can often feel like one step forward and two steps back. As Dahlia rightly suggested to us, if we only look to external events in our world for hope, the world will feel to us like a very hopeless place indeed.

I’ll give you another current example. The aftermath of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, now two years old is, by any standard, a national disgrace. Although, recently on the occasion of the anniversary President Bush assured the people of New Orleans, “We’re paying attention,” more than half of that city still remains devastated. Whole neighborhoods stand as abandoned as they were the day Katrina’s water’s receded. A third of its pre-Katrina residents have relocated. Other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi are still struggling to get to their feet. And yes, tragedy of this story is in large part the tragedy of systemic failure. On a local, state and federal level, the betrayal of these communities has been simply staggering.

As has been widely reported, the only truly successful relief efforts have come at the hands of volunteer agencies and religious institutions. Now certainly volunteer labor alone won’t rebuild the gulf. And certainly we cannot cease in advocating that our governments keep their promises to these devastated communities. But again, like Dahlia, we must ask ourselves the question: are we going to wait for external events to bring us hope? If our only connection to this crisis is through sad and frustrating news reports, that will be a sure recipe for hopelessness and cynicism.

That’s why I’m so very proud to say that our JRC community will be personally committing to this relief effort. Next month, our congregation will be sending a service delegation to New Orleans to witness the devastation first hand, to connect with the heroic efforts taking place on the ground, and personally participate in a rehab project in New Orleans’ Uptown neighborhood. Together, we will literally open the door to a house that has been closed since the day after Katrina, go inside, clear it out completely, and strip it down to its very studs, to prepare it for eventual rehabbing.

Yes, it will only one house among many. But so too is the house in Ramle one house among many. So too is our new congregational house, that we are building according to our environmental sacred values, only one house among many. But in the end, we all know what every home represents those who dwell within. If I may paraphrase a well-known Talmudic dictum, every time we open a door to a home, we open the door to an entire universe. Yes, our actions do make a difference. Every opening of a door, every act of peacemaking, every move we make to heal the world around us has the potential to create a sacred transformation. They can make a difference in ways we can see readily and in ways we will never truly know.

And lest I forget one more crucial point: such actions have the potential to transform our own lives as well. Isn’t that what this time is year all about in the end? That we need not surrender to the complex, often painful external events that too often enter our lives. That no matter what, we can start anew, that our actions do make a difference. I have said it before and I will it argue to anyone willing to listen: if our spiritual tradition stands for anything, it stands for the eternal possibilities of healing, of hope, of transformation. No matter what may happen in the world around us, we are not simply bystanders bearing witness to eternal cycles occurrence and recurrence. We can break these cycles, we can re-chart our courses, in a myriad of small and not so small ways. And if we ever have any doubts about this, we gather and affirm this truth together every single new year.

And here we are. Another new year has arrived. Another door has opened before us. The gates have opened wide. Let’s join hands, step forward, and walk through them together.

3 thoughts on “The Open Door: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah

  1. Michelle Togut

    Thank you, Brant, for this welcome and wonderful reminder that our actions in this world do matter; it is so easy to become cynical, especially in light of the political happenings of the long bleak years of Bush.

    Coincidentally, our family theme for this year is also “coming home,” as Vladimir and I look forward to ending our exile in Los Angeles and returning to Chicago by the next Rosh Hashanah, where we hope to rejoin JRC in its new home.

    L’shanah tovah!

  2. Shirley Gould

    I especially appreciate seeing the sermon in print because I was unable to be present on Erev Rosh Hashonah. These words need to be said often, so that together we do not lose hope in the effectiveness of our actions.

  3. myles gideon

    rabbi rosen, i don’t believe we’ve ever met, but my mom (ruth gideon, of jrc) forwards me your blog posts from time to time.

    i just wanted to say that this was a lovely, moving post/sermon, and i only wish the rabbi’s sermon that i heard on erev rosh hashanah (half-way across the country, in manhattan) had been half as eloquent or powerful.

    shana tovah.


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