I want to begin this outdoor celebration of renewal, this in-person and virtual welcome back festival of rebirth, this joyous Temple Israel New Year’s Eve party, by recounting what still stands as the worst day of my life — It was the day my then 4-year-old son Jesse cut off his finger. Always an inquisitive kid, Jesse decided that it would be a good idea to see what happened if he put his finger in the hinged side of the heavy glass door at the bookstore. (Remember bookstores? Back then there were bookstores.) In any case, the finger was hanging by a thread, and I got a hysterical call from my wife to come to the hospital. But, she told me, there was only one re-attachment surgeon available, and there was a carpenter ahead of us who had cut off three of his own fingers. To make matters worse, they could not give pain killers to a 4-year-old that far in advance of surgery. So, the doctor suggested that sweets might act as a natural anesthetic, and could I stop at Yoz to pick up some ice cream on the way over. So, there I was in the Yoz parking lot, sweating profusely, teary-eyed, when one of my youth group kids, Jori, approached and asked, “Rabbi! What’s wrong?” I told her the saga of the finger and the ice cream and how upset I was that my perfect little boy was no longer perfect. Jori just smiled serenely and said, “Oh, don’t worry rabbi, it’s going to be okay.” At which point she held up her hand to show me the stump of her thumb which she had lost as a child and which I had never even noticed. It was, I tell you, as if God had placed an angel from heaven in my path to remind me that Jesse was much more than just his one little finger and that everything would indeed be okay.
In our Torah portion for Rosh Hashanah, Abraham, in a fit of religious zeal, is about to sacrifice his son Isaac, when just in the nick of time, an angel steps in and yells Abraham! Abraham! Causing him to look up from his grisly task, catch sight of a ram caught in a thicket, and realize that sacrificing the ram would be a much better idea than sacrificing his son. The angel, you see, gives him that moment of perspective, that sacred pause, to see his situation in a new light.
And I do believe that we have all met such angels of perspective in the difficult year that has passed. At the beginning of this crisis, a member of temple Zoomed in for counseling to help deal with her pandemic-based depression. We spoke for over an hour and frankly….gornischt helfen--she was as distressed when we finished as she was when we began. Sometime later I ran into her at the grocery store and, even through her mask, I could see that she was smiling. What happened? I asked, thinking that perhaps my brilliant counsel had some kind of delayed effect. “Oh,” she said, “I had an outdoor lunch with one of my friends, who really is an angel, and I told her all the things I told you. But instead of trying to comfort me, she scolded me saying: ‘Don’t you remember how just recently you were complaining that you don’t get enough time to spend with your children? Well, now you do!’ And suddenly my perspective shifted.”
And it is true that for many of us, despite the hardships of this past year and a half, there was more time spent together with family. After all, there were just not as many places to rush off to. And this has caused us to reconsider the importance of family time in our lives moving forward. This was the case even for empty nesters like Wendy and me as we discovered that Zoom could be more than just a place to hold meetings, but also to bake challah and light Shabbos candles with children spread across three states.
But Jori was only the first angel I met on that terrible and awesome day. For when I got to the hospital, I found the doctor explaining to Wendy that, because it was a crush injury rather than a clean cut, time was of the essence and the prognosis was increasingly poor. At which point the carpenter — the very same carpenter who had just cut off three of his own fingers — looks down at my kid, looks up at the surgeon and says, “Doc, take the little boy first.”
Friends, sometimes God will place an angel in your path who will prove that altruism is possible and real. Indeed, I have long argued that altruism is one of the greatest proofs of God’s existence. Not doing a favor for someone because you expect a return. Not Darwin’s image of us as animals competing against one another in a brutal game of survival of the fittest … but making a sacrifice for another person that does not benefit you in any way … that might even result in the loss of three of your own fingers. There is no room for such altruism, you see, in the theory of natural selection. So, if there is selflessness in the world, then we are not just a chance combination of pre-existing matter and physical principles as Darwin would have it. No, we are all of that but something more. And that Something More in Hebrew is known as the neshamah, the soul, the breath of God that resides within each and every one of us. When that carpenter, a stranger, looked into my son’s eyes and said, “Doc, take the little boy first,” could there be any doubt that altruism does exist, or that we had met one of God’s own messengers right there in that hospital waiting room on that terrible day?!
Now I bet there are some out there who are thinking: Do Jews believe in angels? Well, yes, we do. And not only that, but you can be one of God’s angels too! For the Hebrew word Malach simply means Messenger. Every time you reach out to lighten someone’s load, take a stand to right a wrong or volunteer to make our community a better place—you join the ranks of God’s Messengers. And by the way, there are angels here this evening. You see, I am your rabbi, and I know your stories of goodness and courage and self-sacrifice. You cannot imagine how many angels I see sitting before me. And yes, if you are watching online … I see you too.
Finally, you may not believe this, but we encountered still a third angel that day. This angel came in the form of the surgeon who, through the miracle of medical science, was able to re-attach Jesse’s finger so that today you can barely even see the small scar or notice that his fingernail never grows in quite perfectly.
Indeed, the only reason we are able to gather here together on this Rosh Hashanah eve is due to the sacred work of such angels. To every doctor, every nurse, every researcher, every angel of science who is working steadfastly to overcome this pandemic, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. And let me state emphatically here: We support you against those who would diminish your methods, your research, your truth, your knowledge. You are our angels of enlightenment, and we honor you as we enter into this new year of hope.
Friends, this evening I have introduced you to three of my own angels. But I would argue that we have all met these three messengers during this trying time of pandemic: Jori, the angel of perspective, who seemed to be placed in exactly the right spot, at exactly the right time, with exactly the right life experience, to remind her rabbi to count his blessings, even when his world seemed so bleak. The carpenter: One of the many angels of altruism whose courageous and selfless acts proclaim God’s glory in the universe. And the surgeon, representing the angels of enlightenment, whom God has endowed with the knowledge and skill to overcome even the most daunting of plagues.
O God, as we begin this new year 5782, help us to recognize Your angels when they appear in our lives and help us too to become Your messengers bearing Your sacred gifts of perspective, altruism and enlightenment to our families, our community our nation and indeed unto the entire world.